Few artists are able to remain popular and successful while crossing most of the political, cultural, social and sexual lines that divide humanity. Yet, as John has found over the years, life-altering challenges can come along with stratospheric fame.
A six-time Grammy-winner, with dozens of other nominations, and the all-time bestselling male solo artist on the Billboard charts, John has also had his share of lows, one of them being his devastating drug and alcohol addiction.
On Christmas Day, John and David Furnish welcomed a baby boy into the world via a surrogate mother, and fittingly named him Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John. These days, John is happiest as a new father, with the birth of his son coming shortly after the couple’s attempt to adopt a pair of orphaned Eastern European brothers, which failed due to laws that discriminate against gay parents.
The desire to pass on his legacy follows a decade-long artistic renaissance for the 63-year-old John, who has put aside a seemingly endless string of predictable ballads from the 1990s in pursuit of more challenging work — songs that have ultimately come to rival his best efforts from his creative peak in the 1970s.
On Friday, John releases his debut film, Gnomeo & Juliet, as executive producer. It’s a comedic 3-D animated update of the Shakespeare classic that features some of John’s greatest classics along with new material to create one of the most entertaining — if not political — musical scores in years, set against a story line about warring tribes of garden gnomes distinguished only by their red and blue attire.
John recently sat down to discuss his career, fatherhood, his epic personal journeys and how Gnomeo has accidentally tapped the political zeitgeist.
“I think the element of surprise in this business makes us artists really love it,” says John. “One day you’re sitting by the phone, and the next you’re on a huge adventure for the next few months or a year. In 1990, if you’d said in 1993 I’d be writing a song about a warthog [for The Lion King], I’d say you’re out of your mind, but look what happened. And if you’d said in ’90, you’re going to make a film about garden gnomes, I’d say you’re crazy.”
The year 1990 replays often in John’s mind, primarily because it marked a watershed year in his life. Following two decades of phenomenal success, he became a victim of rock-star excess. The AIDS crisis — particularly the death of a young American boy named Ryan White, who contracted the disease through a tainted blood transfusion — was a big part of John’s wake-up call.
He had also experienced the embarrassment of having a huge flop album in 1987, hinting that he might be losing his artistic touch as well.
He came charging back with 1988’s Reg Strikes Back, featuring his hit “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That,” and a cover photo that featured many of his extravagant stage costumes scattered about. The album title referred to John’s birth name, Reginald Dwight, while the photos showed that he was leaving behind some of the trappings of his fame.
John sold his mansions and auctioned off his possessions, then used those funds to create the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which has been at the forefront of fundraising for AIDS research and caring for AIDS orphans around the globe.
He sobered up and soon fell in love with Furnish, a Canadian advertising executive who gave John his first genuine relationship in decades, and the pair settled into upper-class, yet utterly normal, residential neighborhoods in London and Atlanta.
“Life now is fantastic. I love the smell of nappies [diapers] in the morning,” John says, chuckling. “It’s the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me, other than meeting David. I’m much more content in my skin, and I have a balance in my life since 1990.”
That sense of contentment is reflected not only in Gnomeo, but in the work on his latest CD, The Union, in which John brings back his own musical idol, Leon Russell, from relative obscurity for fresh duets that give both men the meatiest work they’ve released in years. The CD has been met with both commercial and critical acclaim, culminating in a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year.
John notes that while Gnomeo features plenty of his greatest old songs, it was a Disney executive who came up with the idea of drawing on his catalogue of classics co-written by lyricist Bernie Taupin. Then, getting up to date, John teamed with Lady Gaga to create the song “Hello, Hello,” which should offer his best chance at a smash hit since his 1997 Princess Diana tribute version of “Candle in the Wind.”
But it’s the film’s apparent sociopolitical undertones, as the warring red and blue gnome factions square off with ever more dangerous results, that make the film stand out. Without ever feeling heavy-handed, the film’s ultimate lessons of tolerance should provide plenty of ideas for adults to consider beyond sheer animated entertainment.
“We started the film 11 years ago, and if we had intended to speak about the red state, blue state mess, we’d have been geniuses,” says John. “But after the president spoke in Tucson, I do feel that there is a message there that this movie, by pure coincidence, has great timing to reach and be a part of. It saddens me that this country I love so much allows itself to be so divided. It simply shouldn’t be this ugly.
“I grew up conservative because my mum was one, but when I found out what they really were I changed immediately,” John continues. “We as children ape our parents. If we’re Catholics or Protestants, Muslims or Jews, Republicans or Democrats, conservative or liberal, any major difference in the world, it’s a bloody shame we let these differences get in the way rather than coming together as humans. At the end of the film, with both gnomes’ lawns destroyed, they finally come together and agree to love and respect each other, and if that’s a lesson that one can get at these contentious times, I’m very happy to offer it.”
John put into practice his belief that people, and not politics, come first when he performed at Rush Limbaugh’s wedding last year in exchange for a $1 million donation to his AIDS foundation, despite much criticism from his more liberal fans. John also hopes that, as societal acceptance of gay rights appears to be growing worldwide, other negative factors, such as anti-gay bullying and hate crimes, will stop.
Hoping for the world’s progress while working daily to maintain his own, Elton John could just rest on his laurels and phone it in from concert stages worldwide. Yet with the presence of a new child in his life, he intends to keep the creative fires burning for years to come.
Shakespeare rattle and roll
Gnomeo & Juliet
Directed by Kelly Asbury
Starring: James McAvoy,
Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith
1 hr. 24 min.
You might think that there’s no way young kids would be interested in Shakespeare, but Elton John has found a way to get their attention. By taking out all the sex and suicide, throwing in two catchy new songs amid an array of his all-time greatest hits, and updating the story to focus on star-crossed lovers from warring teams of garden gnomes in modern-day Stratford-upon-Avon, John has led a team of cutting-edge animators to create a 3-D, fun-filled romp that should entertain adults as much as their children.
Gnomeo and Juliet meet in cute fashion and start a secret romance, and just as in Romeo and Juliet, things go awry when they are caught together, leading to a series of seemingly tragic events.
The key word here, in this G-rated rendition of the tale, is “seemingly.” For in keeping with the need to protect young minds while ultimately using the storyline to teach a message of tolerance in an entertaining rather than heavy-handed fashion, Elton John and his talented team reinvent the play’s third act to create a much happier outcome than the original. While this might upset particularly uptight purists, for most this will mean that the storyline has not only been rendered with more innocence, but with a sense of the unexpected as well.
Beyond that, the film will also interest adults through the seemingly political symbolism of the war between red- and blue-colored forces. While the frequent references to their colors might seem to be a metaphor for the red-state-blue-state political divide in America, it is in fact an incredibly prescient coincidence, as Elton John conceived of the film’s concept more than a decade ago.
As the lead voices, James McAvoy (Wanted) and Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) do a fine job, but it’s the rest of the film’s voice actors who add a surprisingly clever aspect to the film. The vocal cast ranges from Oscar-quality actors such as Michael Caine and Maggie Smith to Ozzy Osbourne, Hulk Hogan and Dolly Parton, with Parton‘s brief role being especially delightful.
But in hearing a song like “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” as the rocking soundtrack to a drag race between gnomes riding lawnmowers or “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” used in a zippy romantic montage, the film becomes so purely enjoyable that one can only wonder why it took so long for rock songs to perfectly fit an animated film and whether there are other stars whose catalogs can do the honors for other cartoons.