The iconic pop musician talks about the 11-year grind to make “Gnomeo & Juliet,” and about the star who can play him brilliantly in a biopic
Elton John's history with the Academy Awards almost got off to a very bad start.
It came when he wrote songs for the 1994 Disney film "The Lion King," including a sweeping ballad that he figured would be the movie's signature love song.
"I remember [then Disney chief] Jeffrey Katzenberg showing me 'The Lion King' about four weeks before it came out, and it had no 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight,'" John remembered in a conversation with TheWrap. "I was so upset, and I told him so.
"And he put it back in and it won an Oscar."
Maybe that's why the iconic pop musician can afford to be magnanimous about the rocky road that led to his current Oscar contenders, a pair of songs from the animated feature "Gnomeo & Juliet." The film took 11 years to get off the ground, and along the way it lost three or four songs that John had written.
"It died so many times and was resuscitated so many times," said John, who also produced the "Romeo and Juliet"-style story about a pair of garden gnomes from feuding yards. "Be were determined to get it made, and in the end it happened."
One of the deaths came when Disney handed the reins of its animation studio to Pixar's John Lasseter, who killed a number of projects that were in the works. And when Disney exec Dick Cook revived "Gnomeo," said John, he had one major request.
"He said he would like to hear an Elton John soundtrack of older songs as well as newer ones," John said. "Bernie Taupin and I had written five or six songs for the film, and we lost about four of them along the way. But sometimes you just have to grin and bear it.
"And I think ultimately Dick's decision was proved correct, because the film worked really well with the old songs as well."
John said he was particularly sad to lose one song, "The Sky Is Falling," which Lily Allen recorded for the film. But after a career that includes writing songs for the animated movies "The Lion King" and "The Road to Eldorado" and the stage musicals "Aida" and "Billy Elliott," he's used to songs falling by the wayside.
"It's what happens in this process," he said. "You overwrite and then you eliminate, and some of the songs that get left behind are good. You have to just take it on the chin."
The two songs that did survive, and now sit in the film alongside John classics like "Your Song" and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," are "Hello Hello" and "Love Builds a Garden," both of which were entered in this year's Oscar race.
The former, he said, is consciously modeled on the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye." "It's very much a Beatles pastiche, to be honest with you, and that was quite easy to do," he said.
John originally sang the song by himself, "which didn't make any sense" for the scene in which the star-crossed lovers first meet. So he asked Lady Gaga to sing it with him.
"The fact that she did it was such a morale boost for me and for everyone concerned with the film," he said.
Asked why he needed a morale boost, he paused.
"Even when we had the green light, there were things that happened that really were energy sapping, and studio decisions that were made and then reversed," he said. "It's part and parcel of the process. But when you're spending so much time nitpicking from one scene to the next, things can just floor you sometimes."
The second new song, "Love Builds a Garden," is John's favorite of the new songs. "It's just a stock ballad, and I can do those," he said.
"I find it much easier to write for particular scenes and characters than writing a song for an album, when you're just writing randomly. With this, you know the mood of the scene. You know it's got to be happy or sad or reflective or whatever. I find it quite easy, and inspiring."
As a father of a son who had his first birthday on Christmas day, John also insisted that the film isn't just a kids' movie about garden gnomes – it's a statement about tolerance too.
Next up, he said, is a movie about his own life, "Rocket Man." Lee Hall, who wrote "Billy Elliott" and co-wrote "War Horse," has completed a script that covers much of John's life, and the singer said he is assembling a team to make the film.
"We have a director on board, but we can't announce it yet," he said. "He's got another thing to do first, but he's the one we want. I would think we can make an announcement toward the middle of the year. But for now it's just a matter of waiting, and then casting."
As for who should play him in the film, he's got a top candidate all picked out: Justin Timberlake, who played a '70s Elton in a video made by David LaChapelle for John's "Red Piano" show in Las Vegas.
Here's Justin as Elton:
"He was totally brilliant," said John. "He was so like me it was eerie. So he would be my dream guy."
Still, he has other possibilities. "Ewan McGregor is great," he mused. "Robert Downey is great. But you have to have someone who can play the role from beginning to end. It ends when I'm 43 and I walk into rehab. And so I think Justin would be the number one candidate at this moment – him, or somebody we don’t even know.
"But Justin has played me before, and he did it so brilliantly that he would be an obvious choice."
(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)