By Craig Clizbe And Matt Clizbe
As the 2019 version of Aladdin’s soundtrack entered the Billboard 200 in the top 10 at #6, it is another reminder of how classic music and nostalgia is alive and well at the box office. This is also evident with the May 31st release of the new Elton John biopic, Rocketman. The film is described by Paramount Pictures as “an epic musical fantasy about the incredible human story of Elton John’s breakthrough years.” It was also set to Elton John’s extensive song catalogue this time performed by the film’s star Taron Egerton with various other cast members. Rocketman also stars Jamie Bell as Elton’s longtime lyricist and writing partner Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden as Elton’s then manager, John Reid, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mother Sheila Farebrother.
Like what is part of what makes the recent Disney live action musicals successful, this film has a soundtrack that also played the role in re-imagining classic songs that are also used in the film’s narrative. This is why many of Elton John’s most beloved songs are retooled to fit a musical fantasy format inside an R-Rated biographical story of his rise to fame.
To achieve this unique approach to a biopic, the Rocketman soundtrack producer Giles Martin worked closely with the filmmakers, supervising all of the music for the production and pulling a vocal masterclass with Taron in the studio.
Music for the Rocketman and it’s accompanying soundtrack was recorded between 2017 and 2019 at Abbey Road Studios and AIR Studios in London. The production of this music came at a very unique time in Elton John’s career. This was largely because in November of 2017, Elton had also officially signed on to rework his original Lion King musical compositions for Jon Favreau’s 2019 live-action/CGI remake.
Rocketman over performed for Paramount Pictures, (originally projected to bring in $20–25 million from 3,610 theaters) as it grossed $31.8 million in the United States and Canada, and $35.4 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $67.2 million. It went on to open third at the box office in the United States behind Warner Bros.’ Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Disney’s Aladdin (2019).
It was as if the May 31st release of Rocketman was planned perfectly, right before the remake of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King in July of 2019. However to understand how unique Rocketman’s success truly is, you need to go back to the time when Elton John was working closely with Disney after the original Lion King. This week’s #TBT article takes us back to when the development of the Rocketman film began, while he also opened the door for a future Disney mega star. This is the story of Elton John’s single, “I Want Love.”
Elton John’s “I Want Love” was first released as a single from Elton John’s 2001 album Songs from the West Coast, but in order to understand its impact we need to go back to the mid 90s where Elton was on a unprecedented wave of success that began with The Lion King. 1994’s The Lion King Soundtrack (composed by Elton John And Tim Risce with Hans Zimmer) had become the best selling soundtrack for an animated film with over 10 million copies sold. Therefore the late 90s were full of multi-platinum successes with his albums that followed, Those were Made In England (1995), and The Big Picture. (1997) It was also during that time when his tribute to Princess Diana, “Candle In The Wind 1997” became the best selling single of all time as well. He would also collaborate again with his Lion King co-writer, Tim Rice on the Disney Theatrical Production, Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida. (1999)
It was around that time of constant collaboration with Disney when the studio naturally began talks in helping him create the biopic that eventually would become Rocketman. Casting ideas for the film began alongside the release of that previously mentioned 2001 album, Songs From The West Coast.
It all started when the music videos for that album’s 3 singles all starred younger celebrities lip syncing to Elton John singing. Among them was, the 2002 single “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore.” That video featured a powerful performance from *NSYNC member, Justin Timberlake as a young Elton John. Apparently it was then when Rocketman was still in development at The Walt Disney Studios. Justin Timberlake’s casting idea was mentioned once again in a May 2019 article from The Hollywood Reporter after Paramount’s version of Rocketman with Taron Egerton hit The Cannes Film Festival.
Elton John’s husband and Rocketman producer David Furnish talked about Elton originally wanting Justin Timberlake to play the part.
“But we never formerly approached Justin because we weren’t ever at a stage where it was the right time to approach him,” Furnish continued. “But he did an amazing job in the video. He put on a prosthetic nose, and it turned out to have been some really interesting acting work as well.”
Obviously while Elton John would appear on MTV’s TRL in 2002 with Justin Timberlake to express interest in working with him in the future, it would never happen. The project was in limbo between studios for quite some time after that, For a while Elton John had brought the project to Comcast’s Focus Features with future, Venom star, Tom Hardy attached to star at one point. However once again that didn’t happen. Eventually as we all know Rocketman found its way to Paramount Pictures with Taron Egerton winning the role of Elton John.
One of the main reasons why Egerton earned the role was his vocal performance as Johnny The Gorilla in Illumination Entertainment’s 2016 animated film Sing. In that film Egerton’s Johnny the Gorilla is heard singing Elton’s hit “I’m Still Standing.”
So while the album Songs From The West Coast didn’t help launch the acting career of Justin Timberlake as originally intended, it did in fact help re-energize the career of a then controversial actor, who would later become a superstar for Disney’s Marvel Studios. *NSYNC’s Justin Timberlake was certainly a safe bet in starring in the music video for “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore,” but there was no doubt that Elton John took a risk when he casted the then troubled actor, Robert Downey Jr, in the video for the album’s first single “I Want Love.”
As originally reported in the MTV.com article from August, 2001,
“Elton John has given Robert Downey Jr. his first acting job since the troubled thespian was ordered into a drug treatment program in July. The actor shot a video for John’s next single, “I Want Love,” in Beverly Hills, California, earlier this week, according to John’s publicist.”
In another MTV interview the process of filming “I Want Love” was disccussed. The video’s director Sam Taylor-Wood shot 16 takes of the video and used the last one because, according to John, Downey looked completely relaxed, and, “The way he underplays it is fantastic”. Just like the previously mentioned “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore,” Elton John and Robert Downey Jr’s video would receive regular rotation on MTV including on TRL. The song became a modest hit, peaking at number 6 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart.
Shortly after its release in September 2001, “I Want Love” was included on Elton John’s 2002 compilation Greatest Hits 1970–2002. Thanks to the MTV exposure, the song gained a much bigger audience. Greatest Hits 1970–2002 would eventually go on to sell over 6 million copies in the United States as the first Elton John compilation to be released since the Universal Music Group gained control of Elton John’s entire catalogue in partnership with Elton John himself.
As for Robert Downey Jr., while it was not the biggest part for an actor of his talent level, we all know things would begin to look up for the actor. Just a quick seven years after that, RDJ would reinvent his career when he teamed up with Elton John’s future Lion King (2019) director, Jon Favreau in the first film from Marvel Studios, Iron Man. Since then, we all have watched Robert Downey Jr. lead what has become the 22 film saga of what has transformed into, The Marvel Cinematic Universe. That Universe has recently reached its culmination in April’s release of Avengers Endgame, which included Robert Downey Jr.’s curtain call performance as the character of Tony Stark/Iron Man.
So in honor of both Elton John and Robert Downey Jr, enjoying a major success on the big screen that was many years in the making, let’s journey back to 2001 when there paths crossed in the video for this week’s Throwback, “I Want Love.”
Elton John (With Robert Downey Jr.)
“I Want Love”
From Songs From The West Coast
Rocket/Universal Music Group
Elton John (With Justin Timberlake of *NSYNC.)
“This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore”
From Songs From The West Coast
Rocket/Universal Music Group
Elton John And Justin Timberlake Interview Each Other
From TRL in 2002
Elton John And Teron Edgerton
“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”
From Rocketman Soundtrack