How 'Rocketman' Soundtrack Producer Giles Martin Rearranged Elton John Classics [Interview]

Who wants the job of altering some of the greatest and most beautiful rock songs probably ever produced? It's a job that'd probably scare off some musicians, but of course, not record producer and musical virtuoso Giles Martin. Martin, who's previously remastered The Beatles' White Album and Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band, does a wonderful job of keeping the beauty of Sir Elton John and Bernie Taupin's music alive and vibrant in his altered versions.

Working on Rocketman wasn't Martin's first encounter with John, who recorded with his father, George Martin (often known as "the fifth Beatle"). Now that Giles Martin has worked more closely with Elton John in the studio, his life has come full-fircle. It's an experience Martin calls "a labor of love," and I could've asked the Rocketman soundtrack producer a million questions about. In the time we did have with Martin, who also has a cameo in the movie, he told us about rearranging John's songs, what he wants to see and hear in a musical, and remastering The Beatles' "A Day in the Life."

How do you think your own personal feelings about Elton John's music influenced some of your choices?

You almost can't let your own personal preferences take control because you're serving a film. Also, the script pretty much had the songs mapped out, but we did make some changes. My job was to make sure the songs worked in the film. You know, I remember someone working on the film saying to me, "I don't like 'The Bitch is Back,'" but I said, "Well, millions of people do. That's not our jobs. And I love 'Bitch is Back.'"

[Laughs] You've said how the songs already had a musical feeling, but how did you want them to sound even more like a musical? 

I think musicals are inherently unnatural. You have somebody start singing, you know, it doesn't make any sense. All of my favorite musicals are where the songs make sense in the narrative, and there's a reason why they're there. When the actual actors are singing, it's satisfying. That's why the intros of the songs were changed quite a lot. You take "Tiny Dancer" in the film, the piano entrance doesn't sound quite right with Taron standing there as Bernie goes off with a girl. It's more musical, I suppose, because you're suiting it to the style of the story. That's, I think, what makes it sound like that, but it wasn't thinking, let's make it as musical as possible.

For the singing, I think what works in these reinterpretations is Taron doesn't sound like he's doing an impersonation but capturing the essence of them. Was that the goal?

It's funny you say that because it's been written that we didn't deliberately try to copy Elton, but to a certain extent, we did try to copy to Elton. The motivation behind that, it was important Taron had the right phrasing for the songs. If he was to sing in his own voice, in a way, it'd lose the emotion. The whole thing for me was to carry the emotion of the song, and Taron's a good singer. We did many times listen to Elton and how he sings the song.

How about for Bernie Taupin? He only made one record of his own, which I think is underrated, but was it important at all for Jamie Bell to sing like him? 

That arrangement which is, of course, "Goodbye Yellow Brickroad" was a late script addition. Dexter [Fletcher] said to me, "Wouldn't it be great for Bernie to be singing that to Elton?" I thought that was a great idea. It's actually quite musical that scene, and we pre-recorded with Jamie in the studio and worked through it. He was great, actually. The thing you have to bear in mind, it's really important to me that the singing voices are the same as their spoken voices. A lot of people don't actually sing how they speak. In the case of a musical, I think you have to have that because it's a part of the storytelling.

Rocketman Footage DescriptionHow did maybe the environments sometimes influence your rearrangements? For example, how does the sound change when Elton does a live performance like at Troubadour?

Well, it's funny, because Taron did a lot of singing on set, but that was one of the scenes he didn't sing on set – but you wouldn't notice. There was a lot of noise on set, so it'd be better in the studio. We sort of workshopped that scene in the studio, and it was an interesting path for that one. Elton John didn't initially like "Crocodile Rock" being the song he sang [in the movie] at the Troubadour because the original show wasn't very rock 'n roll. We had a good piano player who did a really good Jerry Lee Lewis on the piano, so we had that, but I told Taron, "Why don't you sing softly to begin with? We'll build from there." That's what we did with the band, too.

How about when he plays to stadiums? 

We didn't have a lot of stadium set piece gigs, but we did have "Rocketman," but it's kind of its own singing session. "Rocketman" was an interesting musical chance, because the singing goes from such extremes, from where it starts to a stadium. "Bennie and the Jets," that's just Taron singing live in the studio with the band.

I'm curious about "Young Song," because it's such a gentle and spare song, so what changes can you make?

Good question. With that particular song, we started changing it, but then I started really missing the original arrangement. I just thought, "This isn't right. We should stick to the original." For that song, we did, but it's slightly different. There's a harp player in the original, and the harpist, Shaila Kanga, she was 20 or 21 when she played on "Young Song." She came and played with Taron as well, so there's some history for you. Because "Your Song" is a seminal moment in the movie, the first time we were in the studios we recorded it. Afterward, I told Taron to keep the original [recording].

You met Elton John when you were very young. What'd you think of him as a kid?

I grew up in a weird environment, and I spent time with Elton John because he'd be in the studios. He just seemed like a very, very nice guy. I think he was a little screwed up when I first met him because it was the early '80s, but he was really kind and generous, which he's been known for. He was also known for his tantrums. I remember there were times where him and Chris Thomas, who's a fantastic producer, would be having arguments with some coke involved in the studios. Everyone was told to steer clear of that stage. I remember him recording "Candle in the Wind" when I was with my father, but we were in the studio again together because he did a new song for the end titles, "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again," and I thought, "Oh my God."

That's great. You've remastered a few of The Beatles' albums, so I really wanted to ask you about working on one of my favorite songs, "A Day in the Life." Your remastered version, what alterations do I hear when I listen to it?

That song is a huge challenge. It's funny you mention that of all the songs on the album because that was the biggest battle. The reason why is because, if you listen to the original recording of that song — and it's worth digging up — when the drums first come in, it's unbelievably bombastic. To get the drums right is what you should listen to and how explosive they sound. Also, when we remixed it, we could use the original orchestra takes. They recorded the orchestra four times, I think, and we went back to the original recordings, so we got the orchestra with a much bigger sound.


Rocketman is now in theaters.