• By: OLM Staff

Giles Martin brings “Rocketman” to life

Photo credit: Alex Lake

Making a musical like the Elton John biopic Rocketman is a monumental feat, but getting the songs just right takes a special kind of magic itself. For Giles Martin (son of Beatles producer George Martin) to craft the film's music however, this meant finding new ways to see Elton John's music with nothing from the legend but his blessing to guide the process. We caught up with Martin following the release of Rocketman to discuss working with star Taron Egerton, finding the right feeling for the film and the weird side-effects of working on a musical biopic after Bohemian Rhapsody.

Ottawa Life: How did you go about reimagining the tracks for the film with Taron Egerton so they were more than just covers?

Giles Martin: I think the reason why they're not really covers is that the versions on the soundtrack album purely stem from trying to make them work in the movie. There's more of a dramatic art trying to tell a story though song than just making music in isolation. It's one of those things where you as an arranger, working with Taron, I think about how we serve the script. And the offshoot of that is you get some interesting versions. The pressure to have the right feel behind each song facilitates these versions.

You've described this as partially recreating your memories of a song rather than just remaking it, can you expand?

Through that these classic songs become bigger than they are. What I meant by that was that you imagine Elton's version of "Rocket Man" as huge, in the way it sounds and is consumed. In reality it's actually very simple though. So for the movie version I deliberately made it more bombastic to fit the moment of the film, and it's such a big song that it deserves it in a way. What I've learned deconstructing material like Sgt. Peppers is that it's really about how a song makes you feel. I was not only adapting music with Taron either, I was fitting it around his voice. 

What led to some of the more Eastern influences on "Saturday Night" and the auditory special effects of "Rocket Man"?

"Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" was always going to be this kind of transition song between young Elton and his older self. So we wanted to use this to try and celebrate London which was multicultural at the time, while also looking at Elton's life at the time. We put these sixties sounds, backwards guitars and what could be called Bollywood arrangements on there too. You're arranging a song to tell the story at its heart. The energy and fanfare of that can discard the meaning of the original entirely for the sake of the film. For "Rocket Man" I had an animatic of what would happen in the film. Seeing it I would imagine the sound in my head. The song itself always sounded kind of ocean-y and watery to me for some reason. So I thought about that with the strings. But you know how you go underwater you get a kind of crackling in your ears, so I played with the strings of a grand piano to try and get that sound. You try to create a picture in sound first, and that's what takes this music to a different experience. There's much more to think about then doing music for a concert, because you can take people somewhere else.

What was the process like in the studio working with Taron, and what did he bring to the process that you hadn't expected?

I knew Taron could sing from watching Sing, but the biggest surprise (and delight) was how he would learn the work and adapt. He put everything into this movie, and there was never a moment he thought it was good enough. He was always trying to learn. He can actually sing too, get up live and do show kind of thing. Often what separates someone like that from an Elton is their phrasing, and Taron got that. There wasn't really an energy of an agent coming in saying "You've got Taron for 20 minutes, make it good." Taron would want to spend as much time as he could to get it right. You can tell that because there's a soulfulness to his voice, and you can't cheat that.

And Elton basically just gave you free reign to make the music without his oversight too right?

Going into the making of the film, he essentially said "Oh, I'll just go watch the film." When we were in rehearsals for the film though, he came down during some of the dance practice. When we asked him if he had any thoughts, he said "I've heard Taron, he's brilliant, I trust Giles completely, I'll let you get on with it." I felt like "Wow, okay" that compliment could have been dangerous so early in the studio. I really cared about his approval more than anything else, because they're his songs and his legacy. I wanted to know that he was happy.

I was also interested to hear about working on fresh material for "I'm Gonna Love Me Again" and how Greg Foster factored in to the process?

I was in L.A., and Taron had sung with Elton for the Oscars to support the AIDS Foundation. They had worked on this song a few times, and I'd heard it, with this kind of Motown feel. We looked at this huge string arrangement for the song, and it made Elton very happy. We did some extra vocals, guitars and redid some drums. I recorded some vocals back in England and it was done nice and simple. The funny thing was Elton and Taron recording though. Elton would say "Let's just do one take," while Taron was ready to record for an hour. Elton says "An hour, what are you doing for an hour?"

I was also interested in how you approached the score-side of the film as it so powerfully rounded out the sound without feeling cheesy?

We'd done arrangements for a handful of songs, and we had some great arrangements for the rest of the film. But I thought we shouldn't have music that isn't actually Elton's in the movie, because it doesn't really make sense with all his melodies. We worked on it in all these ways and if it was corny we'd just throw it out. We wanted the heart of the film to be the music, because the heart of Elton is his music. It was key to respect that. That's why there's so many songs in the film, it makes sense as a soundtrack and tells us about his life.  

I heard you also faced some weird pressure making the music for this film based on producer’s response to Bohemian Rhapsody?

That was from Paramount, they were asking how they hadn't received a soundtrack yet. I just said "I'm still doing it." They hadn't seen much of the film at this point, so I said essentially that the soundtrack for Bohemian Rhapsody was finished back in '85. I was trying to explain that I was creating new music, because this is a different kind of movie. It's much more of a musical than your standard rock biopic. It's only when you watch the film that you realize that the songs are the heartbeat of the story. If it was just concert and studio moments, I could've finished the music by September. The music here was a deeper dive to arrange everything. I wanted it to be organic with Taron, because you don't want someone to sound completely different when they start singing. The intro to "Bitch Is Back" for example came from messing around in the studio, and having him kind of singing this single note similar to the intro of "Flash Gordon" by Queen. That way it could evolve out of him talking into the song.