Rocketman Musical Director Giles Martin Talks Elton John & Taron Egerton [Exclusive]
Giles Martin is the musical director for the stunning Elton John biopic, Rocketman. Starring Taron Egerton, Rocketman is a fantasy musical based on Elton John’s turbulent childhood and meteoric rise to fame. Giles Martin was responsible for recording and arranging the songs for the film. The son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, Giles has also had an impressive musical career. He’s worked with Elton John for decades. Recording the smash single, “Candle in the Wind” for Princess Diana’s memorial in 1997.
Rocketman was a labor of love for Giles Martin. He was brought in at the start of the project by producer Matthew Vaughn and director Dexter Fletcher, who had just completed filming the blockbuster Bohemian Rhapsody. Rocketman was an entirely different type of musical. Taron Egerton would sing Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s songs in his own voice. The music for the film would also be changed to match the dramatic tones of the scenes. Rocketman is not a rote biopic with the lead actor lip-syncing.
I was lucky to get the interview with Giles Martin. Paramount Pictures initially cancelled because he suffered a foot injury. Giles gracefully went through as planned and was quite informative about bringing Rocketman‘s music to the big screen. He talks at length about working with Taron Egerton, Elton John’s faith in their work, and the free rein he was granted creatively. Giles Martin doesn’t feel any pressure to match or surpass Bohemian Rhapsody‘s box office or awards success. He understands the inevitable comparisons, but feels Rocketman will stand on its own merits. Please see his full interview below:
Giles, thanks for doing the interview. The studio informed me you had an accident?
Giles Martin: Yes, I’m definitely not doing anything else. I managed to rupture my Achilles tendon.
Giles Martin: Yup, I’m having surgery tomorrow. You may be the last person to ever talk to me. (laughs)
How involved were you with the casting of Taron Egerton? Were you involved from the very beginning?
Giles Martin: Yes, I was involved from the beginning. But that doesn’t mean I was involved in the casting of Taron. Matthew Vaughn, he’s one of the producers on the film. He directed the Kingsman films, and produced Eddie the Eagle, which Dexter [Fletcher] directed. I’ve known Matthew quite a long time and have worked on some of his films. He asked me if I wanted to be the music director of Rocketman. He explained what it was, and what they wanted to do. Then I met Taron. I knew that Taron could sing. My kids had watched Sing. My wife goes, “He’s the monkey.” Really, the guy from Kingsman, I knew he could do it.
Giles Martin: We spent a long time together. We started eighteen months ago. It’s a movie that requires a lot of vocal work. We know exactly what we were doing before the movie came out. We did a test together. He [Taron] came and sang, we also did a writing test. It’s a bit like in the movie where he’s writing “Your Song”. They showed that to Paramount. Everyone was amazed, Elton John as well. We got the gig from then, I suppose. I’ve just realized we were auditioned. (laughs)
On Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek’s voice was doubled with another singer, then amplified in the studio. Was there anyone else added to Taron’s voice? Are we hearing his pure vocal performance?
Giles Martin: Oh yes, it’s all Taron. On set as well, there’s a number of occasions we had to do more. Dexter and I, for safety sake, pre-recorded everything. But I wish, looking back, that he’d done more live. You can only do so many takes. But when he’s looking in the mirror and doing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, that’s him singing live. He worked incredibly hard on his voice. He can sing. We worked incredibly hard in post as well. There’s a bunch of issues with a movie like this.
The musical numbers are brilliantly elaborate. During filmmaking, were you forced to update any of the music because of changes in the script?
Giles Martin: Well, we pre-recorded everything for the film. We had to film to something. Quite often, we were pretty much prepared what we were filming to. There were a few songs that were cut a bit, just because of time. A lot of it survived. Preparation is the key for these things. Most of the arrangements were in place before we filmed. We had to get the drama right. It was so important for me, and obviously Dexter, that the songs fit in the story. We had a pretty good idea what we were doing before shooting a frame of the movie.
One of the film’s strengths is how the songs were paced to match the dramatic intent of the scenes. How involved were Elton John and Bernie Taupin in changing the rhythm and meter of the songs?
Giles Martin: Not at all.
Giles Martin: It was strange. Elton came to set. They had scheduled me to sit with Elton and play him where I was with the song arrangements. I just had demos. Elton asked if I wanted to play him anything. I said not really. I haven’t really finished anything. He said, “Great, listen everyone, I trust Giles. He’s doing the music. I trust Taron. Everyone’s heard him sing. I’ll just let them do their thing.” That’s the way we worked.
Isn’t that terrifying though? Did you feel nervous at all that Elton had that much confidence in you?
Giles Martin: Yes, absolutely. But I’m kind of used to it with the stuff I had to do for The Beatles. I’m used to terrifying…to a certain extent. It’s better that way than the other way around, where someone doesn’t believe in what you’re doing. (laughs)
Giles Martin: There was a day in January. I was in my studio at Abbey Road Studios. My phone rang. It was an LA number. It was Elton. He said, “Listen Giles, I just wanted to tell you. I’m so happy with the music.” I was like, wow. That was the best thing I had heard in a while. Despite everything else, I’m doing this for him. It’s his music. I’m just borrowing it for a bit. It meant so much to me to get that phone call. He did trust me. And it was nerve-racking. In the end, I’m very proud of what we did.
What was the most problematic song or arrangement for the film?
Giles Martin: It was “Tiny Dancer”. It was hard to get it right for the movie. It’s more with the scene than anything else. The song is so iconic in the introduction. It’s such a piano song. The scene in the movie is Mama Cass’ party. It’s kind of a club. I thought to myself, can we do a guitar? I kept changing my mind about that song in the movie. Me more than anyone else, that was the kind of freedom I got. Dexter would ask me what I was doing. I’m redoing “Tiny Dancer”…again. For some reason, that was the tricky one for me. The songs that you think would be difficult, like the Rocketman scene, were actually easier.
When you look back at the entire musical process, is there anything you would have changed?
Giles Martin: I was at the premiere in London last week. I said to Dexter, I probably would have done “Honky Cat” slightly subtler when it comes on. “Bennie and the Jets” we changed a little bit, but in general, there’s wall to wall music in this film. I think I’m pretty happy with what we did.
You guys did a fantastic job. We’re having a moment where musicals are having a resurgence. Bohemian Rhapsody, also directed by Dexter Fletcher, made nearly a billion dollars and won four Oscars, including Best Actor. Do you feel any pressure at all to match or surpass that film’s success?
Giles Martin: No, I think the two are very different films actually. Certainly the music is very different. Bohemian Rhapsody went with the original material. We did completely new arrangements. I think that everything should be taken on its own merits. Bohemian Rhapsody was such a sensation. I don’t think there will be a musical to top that in a long time. However, I’m really proud of Rocketman. I’m really happy I did Rocketman. It has a huge amount of heart and character. It was probably one of the best collaborative experiences in my life.
Rocketman is in theaters this weekend from Paramount Pictures.