AMY LONGSDORF For The Times LeaderAs he heads into his fifth decade in show business, Sir Elton John says his career longevity comes from always having an open mind. Let other pop icons stick to a tried-and-true formula; the spectacled one prefers to shake things up.
John was experiencing a career lull in 1993 when he sat down to write the music for the Disney cartoon “The Lion King,” which went on to net him an Academy Award. A few years later, he helped expand the movie into a stage musical, which has become a Broadway institution.
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Sir Elton John’s life has taken many twists and turns. Here he is seen in concert at Universal Amphitheater in Universal City, Calif., on Oct. 7, 1986.
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Heading into his fifth decade in show business, Elton John’s latest project is for Disney’s ’Gnomeo and Juliet.’
More recently, he composed the musicals “Aida” and “Billy Elliot,” recorded an album of duets with Leon Russell called “The Union” and popped up on Kanye West’s acclaimed CD, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.“
And that’s not all. For the past 11 years, John has been overseeing — and composing songs for — Disney’s “Gnomeo and Juliet,” an animated retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” with garden gnomes.
“In 1990, if you had said that in 1993, I’d be writing a song about a warthog I’d have said you were out of your mind,” he says with a laugh, referring to “The Lion King.”
“When Tim Rice gave me the lyrics that said, ‘When I was a young warthog,’ I thought I was losing my mind, and look what happened. If you’d have said in 1990 that I was going to make a film about garden gnomes, I’d have said you were crazy. So this is the joy of being a creative person. Things can come along which completely surprise you.”
Opening Friday, “Gnomeo and Juliet” is indeed full of surprises. James McAvoy and Emily Blunt provide the voices for the title characters, a pair of red and blue garden gnomes who come from warring tribes of lawn ornaments. To be together, the sweeties have to overcome a number of obstacles, including prickly pink flamingos and aggressive lawnmowers.
When John was pitched the idea for “Gnomeo and Juliet,” he responded immediately to the theme of star-crossed love. He agreed to compose songs and executive produce the movie through Rocket Pictures, the production company he runs with his companion of 18 years, David Furnish.
Originally, John planned to write only a few songs for the film, but executives at Walt Disney Studios suggested “Gnomeo and Juliet” be turned into a celebration of Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin’s music.
With the help of composer James Newton Howard, who coincidentally began his career in John’s band, Elton oversaw the use of some of his most famous numbers, including “Saturday Night’s All Right (For Fighting),” “Bennie and The Jets,” “Your Song” and “Rocket Man.”
“I think that James did such a great job because even though the music is all out of our back catalogue — as well as a couple of new songs — it doesn’t feel that it’s overbearing,” John notes. “It’s not an Elton John movie; it feels like ‘Gnomeo and Juliet’ with some good music in it. “
One of John’s oldest songs, “Crocodile Rock,” is reworked as a duet with Nelly Furtado, while a new number “Hello, Hello” benefits from some Lady Gaga magic.
Anyone who’s watched the John documentary “Tantrums and Tiaras” knows the pop icon has a massive temper as well as a healthy regard for his own talents. But, he insists, he checks his ego at the door when he collaborates on movies and stage shows.
“I’m a team player, really,” he says. “That’s why I like doing the musicals. …With ‘Billy Elliot,’ for example, we left three songs out which were really great songs, but it would’ve made the show four hours long. With musicals and movies, 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.’ ”
With “Gnomeo and Juliet,” John often found himself fighting to keep the film alive. “There were a couple of times when the movie was in a kind of danger of being dropped by the studio, Walt Disney, and I’d have to make a phone call to the head of the studio to say, ‘Listen, it’s me. We have to have a meeting. We’ve come so far. We cannot lose the film now.’ ”
“Gnomeo and Juliet” might take place between warring factions of garden gnomes, but John believes the movie’s message is a particularly relevant one.
“I think this movie says, ‘We should all get on.’ It doesn’t matter if we’re Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jewish, Democrat or Republican. I think in America, (political debate) has gotten so far outstretched now to the point where the rhetoric is dangerous, and it puts things in people’s minds.
“In the film, when each side has destroyed both of their gardens, they say, ‘Enough. This is ridiculous. Let’s get on with our lives. Let’s be friends.’ I think the movie sends out a very positive message.”
By his own estimation, John has never been happier. After surviving drug addiction, a sham marriage and career craters, he’s riding high professionally (the Leon Russell duets album earned a five-star rave from Rolling Stone) and personally (he and Furnish recently became parents, via a surrogate, of a son named Zachary).
“Right now, I’m enjoying everything in my life,” he says.
So, what’s it like being a first-time father at 63?
“It’s fantastic,” he replies. “I mean, I love the smell of nappies. Obviously it’s been the most wonderful thing that’s probably ever happened to me after meeting David.
“The most surprising thing is that it’s been very relaxing because this little soul that you’re feeding and changing and bathing and telling bedtime stories to is a blank canvas, and all it needs is love and nurturing. It’s just the most wonderful feeling.”
At the moment, John is getting ready to begin a European tour with his band, which includes a trio of musicians (Ray Cooper, Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson), who’ve played with him since the ’70s.
“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,” he says. “Until I found that in 1990, I didn’t. I’d come off stage, and I didn’t know what to do with myself.
“Now I come home. I fly home every night after a show. I get back in my own bed. I have a wonderful partner. I have wonderful friends. I can remember things. I don’t take drugs anymore. I can even remember the words to songs. It’s a whole new world out there.”