He’s one of the most iconic figures in rock history and now, after five decades of music, Paramount Pictures and director Dexter Fletcher have brought the story of Elton John to audiences around the world with their recent release, Rocketman.
The film, which the studio describes as a musical fantasy, tracks the early childhood, career path and transformation of shy piano prodigy Reginald Dwight into one of the biggest, international superstars in pop culture. At the center of the film, naturally, is John’s music. While there’s certainly narrative, the hit songs do a great deal of the heavy lifting in regards to the storytelling. Rocketman’s star, Taron Egerton as John, sings all of the songs himself, as does much of the cast, including Jamie Bell as John’s longtime lyricist and writing partner Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden as John’s first manager John Reid and Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s mother Sheila Farebrother.
GETTING THE RIGHT SOUND
When it came to finding just the right talent who could interpret Elton John’s enormous catalogue of hits for a brand new movie audience, the team placed its confidence in music producer, songwriter, composer and Grammy award winner Giles Martin (son of Beatles producer George Martin). “Elton gave us the freedom not to stay in the confines of how he performed these classic songs,” he says. “He told me, ‘Do whatever you want. It’s yours.’ That was so refreshing because it meant we had the license to use the music to tell this story in a unique, nonlinear way.”
Working with Giles, and the heart of the sound team, were Danny Sheehan, supervising sound editor; Matthew Collinge, supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer; Mike Prestwood Smith, re-recording mixer; and music editors Andy Patterson (who was on the set from the start of the shoot as well as in post) and Cécile Tournesac.
“Ultimately, this film is a fantasy, a collection of unreliable memories from Elton’s life and each memory has its own unique feel,” explains Smith. “Obviously, the music was the driving factor and often the narrative. Each song is doing the story work but sound worked alongside that to either help authenticate the memory or muddle it depending on what it was.”
Smith continues that “part of what makes a fantasy profound and moving for an audience, is that it feels real. I think ultimately Dexter wanted all these events and memories to feel grounded in reality. By doing so, it makes an audience immediately believe what they’re seeing is real, despite it being fantastic.”
Smith points to certain scenes, one where John is at the bottom of a swimming pool singing under water or performing on a stage in front of 100,000 people and then blasts off like a rocket. “These things have to feel fantastic, but also part of the power of that is to authenticate them. And so sound has a lot of work to do that, to make that feel both fantastic and real. It’s a real balancing act. That was one of the joys about doing a film like this, is that there’s so much that can be done with it because it’s not just straight up. Sound is doing a lot of the manipulative work to convey or subvert the narrative. Ultimately, we wanted to make sure that Taron’s performance was completely believable. He’s an amazing singer and he sang everything himself. Some of it was live, most of it was prerecorded, some post recorded, so it came from all over the place. It had to feel absolutely integrated with the reality that was going on around him to ground the performance.”
According to Sheehan, “Although a lot of editorial and mixing tricks were used throughout these transitions to help ground the reality for the musical numbers, one example of where we were really exposed and felt this worked really well in the end was when Taron sings Crocodile Rock at the Troubadour. He walks out on stage in slow motion to an expectant crowd and we go from this big sounding underwater/muted sound design feel that Matt created into reality and then to absolute silence as Taron sits nervously at the piano. Out of this silence we then hear Taron's first few lines of the song. Although he had done this live on the day, he actually wanted to improve his performance and re-recorded it again in post. From this new produced, clean recording Mike had done a great job making Taron feel like he was singing through a club PA and although the lip sync was right too, it still felt exposed somehow and bumped a little like a line of ADR not quite sitting on the screen with the actor. I went back and listened to his original live performance to see why this was still not landing in the mix. I found it had these nervous breath nuances in between his vocal, the sound of air blowing across the microphone. I edited these into the vocal and Mike mixed them in. A very small detail but made a huge difference in helping give the feeling of reality of Taron performing it live on the day.”
Certainly producing a film about a music legend in a unique, fantastic way is not without its challenges. One scene features John onstage at Dodgers Stadium in front of thousands of fans, who then sing back the chorus to him. The problem here was, there was no live/set recordings of the event. “It was all created later with VFX,” explains Sheehan. “It’s a very hard thing with sound to sell this kind of scale unless you can get into a huge space full of spectators to record it for real. Luckily for us, the production had 200 extras coming back in to do some pick up shoots, so we grabbed this opportunity and recorded as much coverage with them as possible. We also recorded a number of crowd sessions throughout the film and for every session we would grab as many people as possible to sing the chorus outside at Shepperton Studios. With some manipulation from favored plug-ins, I think we managed to get the feeling about right.”
Smith points to the “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” scene, that he describes as both a “fantasy/memory but also a real scene, with real people, in a real environment. It’s also a single shot that goes through a pub brawl, a fairground fight, through people dancing and singing and it all has to feel seamlessly like one shot. The vocal and music needs to just sit above all that and convey the narrative of what he’s feeling in that time and yet you also need this sense of reality tying it all together — all the crowd, all the dancing, all the Foley, everything has to feel like just at the right level of connected reality and yet the song has to emotionally take you through. The sound has to do an immense amount of work to convince you to just sit and relax and enjoy this experience without questioning it and yet at the same time, be exciting and dramatic and enjoyable. So, it was a really intricate piece of sound work on every level, from music editing to vocal editing to mixing, when you’re watching the scene it kind of goes by, you’re like, ‘Oh that was fun,’ but when you take the hood off and look underneath there are all sorts of sticky tape an scaffolding holding it up to make it feel convincing. Many of the other songs have similar challenges, but that one you can clearly look at and go, ‘Yeah, I can see what the sound is doing and it’s doing an immense amount of work.’”
According to Collinge, this film “was a unique project for me where usually at the final mix stage, you’re going there with different disciplines — with dialogue, with the score, with the sound design, and you’re seeing how they can fit together and work. With this, they were all combined by the nature of the role of the songs in the film. If the sound design or Foley felt separate, they would be at odds with what we were trying to achieve, so everything had to become a part of the whole, which is a really nice way of working and actually effected very much the way we collaborated with the different departments.”
MIXING & EDITING
The songs and score were mixed at London’s Abbey Road Studios by Martin and engineer Sam Okell, and as part of the process the team used their relatively new facility called the Mix Stage. “It’s a Dolby Atmos-certified dubbing theatre,” says Patterson. “We found that that gave us greater translation of the song mixes when we took them down to the main mix at Goldcrest. Sam mixed in 5.1 and gave us a wide split of stems for each song and cue — up to 24 5.1 stems on some songs. We were working on quite a tight schedule, and Mike wanted to make sure he had all the tools he needed to make the mix work. To that end, we hired in a copy of the [Avid] Pro Tools rig they used for the music mixes, and set up a cutting room down at Goldcrest. Sam sent over his mix sessions with his stems, so we could open them up and work on them, before reprinting stems as required. This saved us so much time. With our rig, we could achieve this without delaying the mix, or stopping work too much at all. The systems included plug-ins from Fabfilter, Soundtoys, UAD, Altiverb, Phoenix Verb and Waves, in addition to the standard Avid set.
Smith says the entire mix was completed in Pro Tools because “it gave us the flexibility to keep fluid with the cut and also keep building it so we weren’t bogged down in the logistics. It was a very creative process. And I think, especially on some of the very big set pieces, which from a mixing perspective, they always take quite a few go arounds until you get it right. You keep doing it, and I think working that way, within Pro Tools, allows it to be fluid.”
Smith also relied on several plug-ins, including Oeksound’s Spiff, Fabfilter’s new Q3 and Desser.
The sound editing was completed by Sheehan and Collinge at Phaze UK with Rob Prynne, sound designer and Rob Turner, FX editing. The Foley was recorded at Shepperton with Glen Gathard and Pete Burgis.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
Rather than pointing to any innovative or groundbreaking techniques or tools, it was the film itself that was unique. “I’ve not worked on a film where you have a big score piece of music but then that score piece becomes part of the magic realism of the scene and then moves to become part of the environment and the focus of that scene in terms of ‘real world,’” says Collinge. He points to the “RocketMan” scene as an example. “You finish in the Dodgers' stadium and the crowd is singing along. The ‘score’ is all of a sudden being played for this audience and you’re immersed in that scene, so the sound is shifting in a way that it’s becoming something different — but the thread is the song.
“We probably all used techniques we’ve used before, but probably never quite in this way because of the nature of the material. Like Mike has said, the focus often for us were the transitions, the handovers — going from realism into magic realism and using sound as a way of leading people into those songs. We were trying to use the sound to have that connection with that person in that scene in that situation and then drift into their heads emotionally — it’s where sound can be more subconscious than picture — when you’re trainsitioning visually you’re usually consicious of that change whereas with sound those shifts can happen without you being so aware of them.”
According to Tournesac, “The score, written by Matthew Margeson, needed to be tied into Elton John’s musical world. So we constantly referred back to his songs in the score, and it all came together with the songs. Whenever a song came in, it was almost transparent with the score because it was all tied together with those well-known melodies.”
According to Smith, everyone was nervous when it came time for John to finally seeing the results. “He was overjoyed,” Smith says. “Everyone felt a huge sense of relief. We were all really lucky that he allowed us to make a film beyond just a biography — to make something fantastic and magical and otherworldly. It says so much more about his life.”