Interview: Elton John Talks Gnomeo and Juliet and His Long Career

I've interviewed maybe four or five people in my life who, by their sheer presence, by their proximity to my physical body, left me nervous and awed. Elton John ranks amongst this number. Currently, the pop culture icon is out promoting the animated feature Gnomeo and Juliet, which he executive produced. He also allowed the movie to draw heavily from his extensive back catalogue of songs for its musical numbers. Because of this, you can now watch animated garden gnomes sing "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" or "Bennie and the Jets." Despite how surreal that sounds, the movie has a surplus of charm and, unlike its source material, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, a finale worth dancing to.

Cole Haddon: You've got an immense musical oeuvre. When you agree to have your songs used in an animated musical, how do you go about deciding what to use and what not to use?

Elton John: Well, originally, it wasn't going to be all my music. But when Dick Cook at Disney Studios really got a hold of this project and suggested that we wrote new songs for it, and it should be a whole Elton John, back catalogue thing, I thought it was maybe a good idea. I'd never done that before. I enlisted the help of James Newton Howard, who is the arranger [on Gnomeo and Juliet], and a very famous arranger in this town, who actually used to be in my band. So I had a great relationship with him.

Elton JohnThere was one obvious song that would fit in the movie, which was "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" for the lawn mower race. That wasn't my idea; that was already someone -- I think maybe [the director's] idea. From that point on, I really just handed it over to [Howard] and the rest of the team to put it in. I didn't really take an active part saying, 'This should go there.' I didn't, for example, choose "Bennie and the Jets" to go in the scene when Benny is on the computer ordering the Terraferminator [a terrifying riding lawn mower]. But obviously it worked, so you didn't have to be a magician to think that might work there. But on the whole, it's nice to see the music [used]. I think [Howard] has done such a great job because even though it's all out of back catalogue, [along with] a couple of new songs, it doesn't feel as if it's overbearing and it's an 'Elton John movie.' It feels like Gnomeo and Juliet with some good music in it, and I'm glad it's turned out like that because I didn't want it to be just bang, bang, bang, old catalogue stuff. So that's the way it happened, really.

CH: You broke into the world of animated features with The Lion King. How was this experience different and what, if anything, did it add to your appreciation of the medium?

The Lion KingEJ: Well, with The Lion King, it came my way in 1993 thanks to Tim Rice. I've always collaborated in my career as a songwriter and I loved the idea and the journey of collaboration with everyone on [that project]. I'm a team player, really, that's why I like doing the musicals. I've always had a songwriting partner, and I think what you learn most of all is to leave your ego at the door. I mean, for example, [the] Billy Elliot [musical, which I wrote the songbook for]: We left three songs which were really great songs out of Billy Elliot, but it would have made the show four hours and two minutes long. That can't happen. You have to be prepared to say, 'OK, I'm going to fight for this song, but if you really want to get rid of it, then that's fine.' You've got to do that, and you've got to listen to the team as a whole. There have been so many times where we've convened during the 11 years [it took to make Gnomeo and Juliet], and the film has taken a different course or whatever. You have to be a team player; you have to hold hands when the things are going badly and hold hands when things are going well. You just have to be patient and you have to watch things, how they evolve, and you have to be there for the good of the thing as a whole and not just for you as a component of the piece.

CH: The garden gnomes in this movie fall into two camps, much like in Romeo and Juliet. The Montagues and the Capulets, except here they're differentiated less by name and more by color -- blue and red. Was that intentional, to draw a parallel to the division found in the States today?

EJ: [We started this process] 11 years ago, and if we'd have had the foresight to do that, I'd say we're f@%*ing geniuses. But it just happens to be at this time, it's coming out three weeks after the president made the speech in Tucson last week, which was a very poignant moment in the history of America after this tragedy happened. I do feel as though there is a message in this film, like we spend so much time hating each other because our parents tell us that that's what we have to do. I grew up conservative because my mum was a conservative. When I finally realized what conservatives were, I changed my mind immediately. So we tend, as children, to ape our parents, and I think this is a storyline saying that we should all get on, even if we don't -- if we're Catholic and we're Protestant or we're Muslim and we're Jews. If we're Protestants and Catholics, if we're Democrats or Republicans. I think in America, though, it's gotten so far outstretched now, where the rhetoric is so dangerous, and it puts things in people's minds. It's so unnecessary.

Gnomeo and JulietIf there is any message that can come out of this film, which is purely coincidental and the time is coincidental, then I'm all for it because I'm -- as I grow older, it saddens me to see a country that I love so much having such a gulf between the people sometimes that they don't meet in the middle and talk and put their differences aside. I played a Proposition 8 concert the other night, and the two great lawyers who are fighting for this same-sex relationship recognition in California, one is a staunch Republican and one is a staunch Democrat. And yet they met and they both think this is the right thing to do. That is what life is all about. It's not about hatred, and I think in the film, at the end of this, when they've destroyed both of the gardens, they actually say, 'Enough. This is ridiculous. Let's just get on with our life. Let's be friends.' And I think that sends out a positive message, but it truly is coincidental.

CH: You're going back on tour this year. Curious, does it feel any different for you to be on stage today at this point in your career? Does it feel different compared to 20, 30, maybe 10 years ago?

EJ: I think it's so much more comfortable for me now. I mean, I've always enjoyed and loved playing live. I relish and cherish it more than anything else because you never know what the performance is going to be. If you go on stage, some nights you do a performance and you're feeling great. Sometimes you're not as great as you think you're feeling. Some nights you're feeling tired and you give a really great performance. It's the unknown. You don't know, being a performer, what kind of a performance you're going to give. You know you can give a certain quality of a performance, but as I grow older, I'm much more content in my own skin because when I come off stage now, I have a balance in my life. Until I found that in 1990, I didn't. I came off stage and I didn't know what to do with myself. Now, I fly home every night after a show. I get back in my own bed, and I have a wonderful partner. I have wonderful friends. I can remember things. I don't try drugs anymore. [Laughs] It's a whole new world out there. [Laughs again] I can remember the words to the songs. It's great. It's just sensational, what's happened to me in the last few years.

CH: You've pretty much achieved everything an artist can in music, movies, and on the stage. Is there anything left you'd like to conquer? Any dreams left for you?

EJ: Well, there's always things you want to do. I mean, obviously ballet is not an option. Not really. [Laughs] I'd just like to make a really great film about my life story, and we're thinking about that. We have a great script already by Lee Hall who wrote [the movie] Billy Elliot. Obviously it's not going to be your normal run-of-the-mill film because my life has been kind of crazy, and I think it's important to do a kind of surrealistic look or take on my life. I'd love to do that. This business is so incredible. In 1993, I got a phone call from Tim Rice saying would I do The Lion King, when at that time all I was doing was making records, touring, and doing videos. It gave me the opportunity, with that one phone call, to suddenly write musicals for the stage, film scores, and it just opened the doors to so many things. I don't know what's around the corner, and that's kind of the way I like it. You really can't plan. My career has not been planned -- oh, in three years we're going to do this. It just happens by accident. So I don't really have any more ambitions other than I just want to work and do excellent stuff and enjoy it. I'm enjoying everything in my life. But I think the element of surprise in this business is what makes us really love it because one day you're sitting by the phone waiting to do something or not doing anything, and the next day you've got the chance of a lifetime. So those little phone calls don't come up so often, but when they come up, it's fantastic. An example of that is, for example, in 1990, if you'd have said that in 1993 I'd be writing a song about a f@%*ing warthog, I'd have said, 'You're out of your mind.' When Tim Rice gave me lyrics that said, 'When I was a young warthog,' I actually thought I was losing my mind, and look what happened. If you'd have said in 1990, 'You're going to make a film about garden gnomes,' I'd have said, 'You're crazy.' So this is the joyous thing about being a creative person; things can come along that completely surprise you that you normally would never have thought of doing.

CH: Unexpected opportunities might explain a varied career, but how do you explain the eclecticism you've been able to embrace and display during the expanse of that career? What accounts for that?

EJ: The fact that I think when I grew up as a kid, I grew up in a house that listened to radio, bought records. My family always bought records, and I grew up in the early '50s. It was either classical music or dance band music or great vocalists like Frank Sinatra. I mean, I got Songs for Swinging Lovers for my birthday when I was about 8 years old, I think. Of course, when rock and roll came, I had all this knowledge of great American singers and band leaders and musicians and jazz players by the time I was 6 or 7. Then rock and roll came in and changed my life and changed the whole music scene forever. Then I grew to love R&B and Motown and all black music, gospel music. I never dismiss any form of music. I listen to everything. I'm on the new Kanye West record, for example. It's a genius record, and I was on the Alice in Chains record. So you can't really get -- Alice in Chains, Kanye West. I love all different sorts of music. When you've got people who mock rap and say, 'I don't like it,' they should go and check out Kanye in the studio rapping, or Marshall, Eminem, when he's in the studio. It's phenomenal. It's kind of like modern jazz was when John Coltrane, all those people started. It was like -- it's a different thing. Don't knock it until you've seen it. It may not be your cup of tea, but don't ridicule it. And I find that so many of my peers of my age don't listen to anything new. I love the new. I love the energy of the new, the energy of the new act. Because their energy is so infectious that at our age -- I had great energy between 23 and 28, where you're working on adrenaline, and it's just driving you. That energy is just pure adrenaline. Then after that, you lose it a little bit, but you still have enthusiasm and energy. But it's not the adrenaline that the young have. I just think it's so important to listen. The young are so important. The young give you the energy. And if you don't notice the young and you don't take that and you don't give them credit and you don't listen to all sorts of music, then you're missing out on something.

CH: Last question. So ... any chance you garden? Don't suppose you have any garden gnomes of your own?

EJ: I grew up at my grandmother's house, and it was a beautiful garden. But I used to hate mowing the lawn and weeding, which is what you do when you're a kid. I loathed them, and I loathe gardening, but I love gardens and I have two beautiful gardens.