Rocketman, Paramount Picture’s cinematic rock opera of Sir Elton John’s life, is as sui generis as the man who inspired it. More a fantasia than a traditional biopic, the film follows a narrative driven by John’s songs, which fracture, mutate, drift, throb and reverberate along with the arc of his emotional journey, informed as much by his over-the-top performative life on stage as by the depths of his personal demons.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher, who brought Bohemian Rhapsody across the finish line and to its resulting four Oscars and $900+ million at the box office, Rocketman stars Welsh actor Taron Egerton and was written by Billy Elliot and War Horse screenwriter Lee Hall. John and his husband, executive producer David Furnish, gave Lee and soundtrack producer Giles Martin, son of iconic Beatles producer George Martin, free rein to reorder the actual chronology of the songs and pair them instead with the inner timeline of John’s story.
The film’s re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith has worked on more than 100 films since the mid-1990s. He was nominated for an Academy Award with the mix team on Captain Phillips and won a BAFTA for Best Sound for Casino Royale. We talked to him about the upside of deadlines, when to go with your gut and the unique challenges and rewards of mixing a picture where sound plays such a pivotal role.
StudioDaily: What is so unique about this film’s score, soundtrack and mix?
Mike Prestwood Smith: In the score, every musical theme and cue is taken from Elton’s music, so you are never out of touch with his music and it is always a part of the story. Whether it’s a big, all-out number with Taron singing or whether it is a top background track we’re using to underpin a montage sequence or whether it’s the score that’s helping us emotionally, all of the music is based around Elton’s wonderful melodies. That also gave us great license and helped us in and out of the fantasy worlds that spring from Elton’s emotional experience. You almost feel as if you’re getting echoes of the songs. You’re hearing them in a detached sort of way, which helps, I think, evoke the feelings that we are exploring all this through his eyes and his experience. That’s the key about this movie and what makes it so different from any other biopic I’ve ever been involved in. It’s not really a straight-up look at events as they happened. It really is a journey into someone’s psyche and addiction and detachment and ultimate redemption. And the whole time, as the audience, you’re seeing and hearing it through his eyes and ears. That was very much our focus for the sound and I think generally speaking, the music did a lot of heavy lifting in all sorts of ways, both in the score and in the tracks that were recorded.
Who brought you on to the project and when did you first begin discussions with soundtrack producer Giles Martin?
I came on board early on because of my relationship with Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Fantastic Four), one of the producers of the film. I’ve worked on some of his films in the past and he was producing and was keen to get me involved. He and Giles are good buddies, so I got to meet him early on, and we got into conversation right away about how to get this all worked out. Giles was doing all the arranging and orchestrating and was recording all the vocals. I think Elton was very keen, in particular, that whoever was going to play him had to be someone who was going to embrace both the acting and all of his musical performances, including his vocals. They decided pretty early on that whoever was going to play that part would actually be someone who could sing as well as act. And they were lucky enough to get Taron, who was just brilliant.
With that in mind, Giles went to record all of Taron’s vocals and started recording all of the other vocals so that we had them for playback when Dexter started shooting the movie. The plan was to also record live on set so we had options going backwards and forwards during the mix. That’s exactly what happened. Giles and Dexter took the leads in getting all those pre-records done and I came on a bit later on in the game and got mixing it with everything else.
Did actors like Jamie Bell and Richard Madden, who have never sung on-camera before to my knowledge, need convincing?
Yeah, I think Richard said, “There’s no bloody way I’m going to sing!” You can imagine him saying that in his accent! There was definitely a bit of gentle coaxing. The great thing is that Taron had such an infectious commitment to the role that everyone was buoyed by that. I think everyone else really stepped up, or in Richard’s case, relented [laughs], and gave their best performance vocally because Taron was such a great leader. So yes, Jamie and Richard and everyone else who sings in the film did their own performances and I think they all did a great job of it.
What was the most challenging part of the process for you?
One of the things that we found early on was we really wanted the musical numbers to be big, bold and enjoyable musical experiences. But at the same time, we wanted to ground them in a physical reality. The way to do this is to ground them in the performances, which we wanted to feel completely heartfelt, genuine and real. Of course, this is film, so obviously everything is made up. So during the mix, what we found we needed to do was find a layer of reality, depending on which track it was, where the audience felt that what they were seeing was indeed as real, and genuine and authentic as a live performance, yet there was enough room for the music and the vocals to really lead us through. We had to figure that out early on in the “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” number, where Elton, as a boy, starts singing and it goes through this street brawl into a fairground all in one shot. It’s a neat little narrative device. Then it comes back in and Taron leaps in and continues the song as our final Elton. It’s a complex musical moment but it’s also quite complex in the layers of reality and trying to find the connective tissue to make the audience feel like, “OK, this is all happening,” even though we all know it’s not. But you feel like it is, and gauging where that balancing point was with the tracks was a real process of trial and error. Each track had its own little balancing point and it was where a lot of the work was.
With so many finely tuned ears on set, including Elton John himself, I’ll bet that wasn’t an easy thing to pull off.
It wasn’t. That point where you feel connected to what’s happening on the screen and in your ears is quite subjective, and finding that consensus amongst all the filmmakers took quite a while. That was probably the most challenging part of it. But really, to me, the end result made it worthwhile because we kind of got everything: we got an unabashed fantasy but we’re totally along for the ride and believing in it and never really lose touch with the reality of it as Elton’s life. Dexter did say at one point — and I don’t want to blow my own trumpet — that it’s been one of the biggest lifts that sound has had on any movie he’s worked on. There is so much work that sound can do in a movie like this, that until every element was all there, that feeling that we believe in this fantasy playing out before us was only at about 75% from where it needed to be. Because the sound was doing so much work in this film it wasn’t until the various bits of the mix were there in place that it really came alive.
Can you talk about the pivotal scene in the Troubadour where time literally stops and John and the audience are levitating in a moment of ecstatic connection?
That’s an audacious moment there, isn’t it? That really did happen and wasn’t fantasy, by the way. The crowd did literally levitate and of course Elton has always been an incredibly acrobatic performer. Everyone was on a winch in that scene. I love the way that scene goes from this incredibly literal soundtrack of him in a club, where all the perspective is put in and all the PA sounds are manufactured to make us feel like we’re really there. And then suddenly the switch flips and we’re inside this beautiful fantasy moment where the score just leads us into this euphoric event. Then we flip the switch again and bam! We’re back down in the real world. I think it’s such a bold and brave and wonderful concept and it was really great to be part of that sort of filmmaking.
Were there any particular plug-ins in your usual toolkit that came in handy for this mix?
One of the biggest challenges with musicals like this that aren’t live and have multiple vocal sources is first, getting in and out of songs and second, matching all of those prerecorded and on-set bits to make them feel like one continuous, authentic performance. Beyond crafting those tracks with the conventional things like EQ, compression and all the reverbs and things, one of the things I found particularly useful was a Danish plug-in I used from Oeksound called Spiff. When you record on a vocal mic, often it’s a full-capture mic and you’re getting all those percussive consonants and things that are actually location recorded that you don’t need. You’ve got to tame all those transient bits. Spiff is an extremely fast transient tamer and can take all of those impacts, both low and high, out of those very close vocal mic recordings. It really helps get you in the ballpark of what a wider, boom-type mic might pick up. That helped me on many occasions. And then the craft is to shape those tracks to feel continuous using all the usual tricks of the trade, again EQ, compression and finding a reverb that can help connect everything. You’ve also got to play with perspective as much as possible, in terms of giving what is basically a vocal performance in a microphone but giving that shape to picture. The trick is to work the track around as perspectives shift as we come off what would potentially be a location mic and give it some movement. There’s always a lot of very fine, detailed work in that way to help sell those performances. It’s stuff no one ever notices when they watch a film but which take quite a long time to get right.
How much time did you have?
Not that long, really. Somehow we got backed into a deadline where Cannes was our big premiere and we got locked into a four-week mix from that. There are quite a few voices in this show, and to get that done in that amount of time, while also dealing with a cut that was slightly shifting (but not too badly) was a challenge, for sure. I only took one day off; it was quite tight. But, in a way, having those deadlines sometimes really helps focus you creatively. Sometimes if you limit yourself to eight tracks or three instruments or whatever, you can produce a really interesting piece of music because you aren’t distracted by all the other possibilities. You just get on and do it. Actually, having a schedule like that where there’s enough time to do it, but only just, you just get down to the big decisions and think instead let’s be bold and let’s be instinctive about things. It brings out a very creative part of you. It certainly does with me, so I really enjoyed having that limitation. It can really help distill your thoughts and choices. Sometimes when I’m doing a temp mix on something and you’ve got a few days and it can be a really complicated film that you’re working on, you go with your instincts. You might just mute the music to see what it feels like, or throw the dialogue into reverb, or you might just do something that you instinctively feel is the right thing at that point. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. When they do, those instinctive things tend to just define the vibe of what goes on from that point. They can also really help inform the film, and the edit, and all sorts of things beyond that. They can be extremely creative moments and for me that playing, if you like, is where a lot of the enjoyment is in my role.
How did Martin and his impressionist arrangement influence your choices? The soundtrack really seeps into your pores, very much the way Martin’s live Cirque du Soleil show The Beatles: Love did. And the use of the horns and that reverb chord from Sgt. Pepper’s “A Day in the Life” was a lovely nod to that, and to his father’s enduring legacy, too.
Of course! He’s magnificent. And he pays tribute to his father [Beatles producer George Martin] with all the other lovely string moments in the score. He and his team did an incredible job of not only just arranging and orchestrating and recording the music, but also big chunks of the mixing. I ended up with a lot of stems. They are all 5.1 stems, so we ended up making a naked Atmos mix, so a lot of those stems got dismantled and put into the Atmos, which is my role. A lot of the songs are grounded in a rock ’n’ roll vibe with bass, drums and guitars, so we tended to keep those pretty much as they were. But all the other lovely components that Giles put in, all the cinematic stuff, was what we had fun with, making it as immersive as possible, especially in some of the big numbers like “Rocketman” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” where we had lots of elements to play with. Giles is very hands on with that in the mix stage with us. There was a lot of collaboration and we mixed entirely virtually, so we could always change it and we could always add and subtract as we were doing it. As I said, the edit evolved a little bit as we were doing it and verses went in and out. It was a very fluid thing and I think that really helps with the final creative product as well. When it is fluid and collaborative, I think you’re more able to put the logistics to one side and get on with it. Career-wise, there are highlights and this is very much one of them.