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Gnomeo & Juliet – Why Elton John left his ego at the door

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Gnomeo & Juliet - Elton John's gnome
Elton John's gnome © 2011 Miramax

Singer, songwriter, musician, humanitarian, Elton John serves as Executive Producer and provides the music for Touchstone’s new animated feature, Gnomeo & Juliet.

Based very loosely on Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, in this version the characters are garden gnomes, caught in a feud between neighbors. When Gnomeo, who lives in the blue garden, unexpectedly meets Juliet, who resides next door in the red garden, they must hide their love for each other, hoping that eventually they can live happily ever after.

Elton John spoke of his new venture at the press day for the film.

Can you talk about revisiting some of your classic songs for this movie? You have such a huge catalogue of music, how did you decide what to use?

Gnomeo & Juliet - Elton John
Elton John records the voice for his character © 2011 Miramax, Photo by Andrew Macpherson

Well, originally it wasn’t going to be all my music, but when Dick Cook at Disney Studios got hold of this project he suggested we write new songs for it, and it should be an all Elton John/Bernie Taupin 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 who used to be in the band. I had a great relationship with him.

There 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 maybe Kelly’s [Asbury, the director] idea. From that point on I just really handed it over to James and the rest of the team to put it in and didn’t really take an active part saying, ‘This should go there.’

On the whole, I think James has done such a great job, because even though it’s all our back catalogue and a couple of new songs, it doesn’t feel as if it’s overbearing or an Elton John movie. It feels like Gnomeo & Juliet with some good music in it. I’m glad it’s turned out like that because I didn’t want it to be just all catalogue stuff.

How have the songs evolved during the course of this movie?

There’s been so many times where we’ve convened during these 11 years and the film has taken a different course, and you have to be a team player. You really do have to leave your ego at the door, and [you can’t] say, ‘Well, this song’s going in or I’m walking off the film.’ 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.

Gnomeo & Juliet - Elton John
Elton John records a song © 2011 Miramax

You have to write the songs quite a long time ahead because you are writing for the storyboards. We actually wrote four songs for the movie and two of them got left out. One of them was a really great song, but the storyboards changed, the story evolved and things get left by the wayside and you have to accept that when you write for a musical or an animation movie which has music in it.

Is there one song that’s in the movie that you really liked from years ago?

I think for me one of the funniest sequences in the movie is the scene with Your Song when Stephen Merchant plays the dweedy-gnome, and then suddenly there I am, glam-gnome. The gnomo-sexual in the film! When he sings, ‘It’s a little bit runny,’ I lost it when I saw that. That brings back very good memories of a song I’ve sung practically every time I’ve done a show since 1970, so I would have to say I love that moment.

Is this the first time you’ve executive produced a film?

Yes it is. I have a film company with David [Furnish, his partner] called Rocket Pictures, this is our third movie. But this is the first time I’ve executive produced.

What did you do as the Executive Producer?

Oh, you do nothing, absolutely nothing. You just get this title called Executive Producer, and you go away on tour and just say, ‘Get on with it.’

It seems there is a subtext with the garden gnomes being Reds (Republicans) and Blues (Democrats) about what’s going on in America. Was that intended?

Gnomeo & Juliet - Gnomeo and Julie
Blue and red: Gnomeo and Juliet © 2011 Miramax

No. We started the film 11 years ago and if we’d have had the foresight to do that I would have said we were geniuses. But it just happens to be that it’s coming out three weeks after the President made his speech in Tucson last week, which was a very poignant moment in American history after this tragedy happened. I do feel that there is a message in the film, like we spend so much time hating each other because our parents tell us that’s what we have to do.

I grew up conservative because my mum was a conservative and 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, if we’re Protestant or Catholic or we’re Muslims or Jews, or we’re Democrats or Republicans. I think, in America, the rhetoric has gotten so dangerous and it puts things in people’s minds and it’s so unnecessary.

If there is any message that can come out of this film which is purely coincidental, and the timing is coincidental, then I’m all for it.