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‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ and ‘Rocketman’: Mixing Reality and Fantasy with Iconic Rock Songs

"Rocketman" scrambles the Elton John Songbook, while "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" uses the the playlist from popular '60s LA radio station KHJ.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

“Rocketman”

David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

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Both “Rocketman” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” rely heavily on iconic rock music to convey time and place and to immerse us in the mindsets of their principal characters: rising superstar Elton John (Taron Egerton) in Dexter Fletcher’s musical fantasy, and has-been TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and rising actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to Tinseltown.

Both films will be strong contenders in the Sound Editing and Mixing categories, distinguished by their utilization of rock music as part of the soundscapes.

“This was a musical fantasy rather than a straight-up musical, and it was an opportunity to go between the reality and fantasy worlds of Elton’s life, how to structure it, and how to make it feel like something an audience could run along with,” said re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith. “From a sound point of view, it was a challenge to maintain a coherence and go from one scene to another.”

Reality and fantasy converged in Tarantino’s ode to 1969, in which a seismic shift in Hollywood gave rise to the counter-culture movement. “Quentin described that year as pivotal for him and for Hollywood…the John Wayne generation being replaced by the ‘Easy Rider’ generation,” said supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman. “The songs and the length of songs, I think, informed a lot of this film. And it needed the time for the songs to develop alongside the action.”

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Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

“Rocketman”

David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

In “Rocketman,” reality and fantasy continually converge in Elton’s confused state of mind as he describes his surreal life story during drug rehab. Fletcher’s bold decision was to create an emotional context for the songs by performing them out of sequence. The best example was Elton bringing down the house at the Troubadour in 1970 with his first major hit before it was composed: “Crocodile Rock.”

“The Troubadour performance was split into two,” said Smith, “making Elton’s performance completely real with a view of then flipping it 180 when we finally have the audience and Elton lift off the floor and drift into the fantasy world. So a lot of time was spent making that dynamic as literal as possible on the A side. Putting all the perspectives in on the Taron’s vocal, playing the band so it was actually coming from a club, and doing the audience reaction stuff. Then, when we lift off, we could go into this wonderful score moment with a brilliant arrangement by [musical director] Giles Martin. I think it set the tone for a lot of those bold transitions later on.”

The boldest transition occurred in the complex “Saturday’s Alright For Fighting” sequence, with the hand-off between adolescent and adult Elton. It’s a continuous shot with young Elton playing piano in a pub, getting into a fight, which spills out into the alley and then segues into a fairground song and dance celebration. “That gave us the blueprint for the aesthetic that Dexter was aiming for,” added re-recording mixer Matt Collinge. “The real life sounds were rhythmically working with the music to keep you grounded. You stayed in touch with that scene as though you were a part of it. And the change in music was unique to the UK. It was all cross-pollinated with Ska.”

"Rocketman"

“Rocketman”

Paramount Pictures

It culminates with the adventurous “Rocketman” sequence, in which Elton tries to drown himself in his swimming pool after a drug overdose, and miraculously pulls out of it to perform the first of his two legendary Dodger Stadium concerts in 1975. “We flipped the switch and it got pretty weird,” said Smith. “A lot of distorted sound design and mixing went into the crowd at the party to the point where Elton feels totally detached from his surroundings when he gets on that diving board. He’s about as lonely as you could get at that point.

“Underwater, the music takes over in a really lovely way [with string effects from Martin]. It’s a beautiful fantasy with his child-like self singing and we were very keen on making it unreal. From then on, it was a slow build to the stadium where we still wanted the music to drive it. The stadium crowd sings with him and when he shoots up like a rocket, Dolby Atmos became our friend. We build to this crazy crescendo and then you have this sudden cut back to reality when he’s [jolted] inside the plane. It’s quite a dynamic there.”

Meanwhile, Tarantino lent an important cultural dynamic to his soundtrack by emphasizing snippets from AM radio station KHJ, an LA institution in the ’60s. “There are so many examples of songs developing alongside the action in the film,” said supervising sound editor Stateman. “And then the KHJ [disc jockeys] kind of glued it together with a sense of Los Angeles. They provided a color. Quentin described Don Steele and Humble Harve [Miller] as almost as powerful as evangelical types. Kids tuned in to KHJ not only to get their music, but to have a sense of what’s happening in their world. News and information given to them by these disc jockeys.”

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Sony Pictures

In fact, the playlist functions as its own character. For example, after Cliff drops Rick off in Benedict Canyon (the site of the Manson Family slaying of Sharon in the summer of ’69) he listens to “Hector” by The Village Callers, “Ramblin, Gamblin’ Man” by Bob Seger, and “The House That Jack Built” by Aretha Franklin on KHJ during the drive home to his trailer in Van Nuys.

“It’s a strong signal from Quentin about time and place being an essential environment for the characters to emerge and connect with the audience,” added sound mixer Mark Ulano, who received a jump drive from Tarantino with 48 hours of KHJ log tapes two months before the shoot. “He’s very committed to creating concrete, genuine environments with which the actors can build their characterizations. We always have music on the set anyway, but here it was a real time setter for 1969 and for Quentin this was a crossroads.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Sony

Programming the songs was an ongoing process in collaboration with music editor Jim Schultz. “We had potentially five layers of each song: the raw, 1-inch speaker in a mid-’60s vehicle, tinny sound and layered up to the other extreme: full bandwidth, more internal and inside your head, as opposed to the environment it was operating in. Each of those layers would be drawn on in the final mix, depending on where we were at.

“Certain pieces were latch points, like the Jose Feliciano ‘California Dreamin’ [which Cliff listens to as he speeds away from his spooky encounter with the Manson Family at the Spahn Ranch]. For me, the dominant thing I’m focused most on is keeping the connection between the audience and the characters as a believable identity. And it was great for mixing in [Dolby] Atmos. The idea is you can have up to 128 elements in a theater at any given time, and have them move around discreetly and co-exist in space holographically.”

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