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Neither Elton John nor Chris Cornell are newcomers when it comes to writing songs for movies, but the two Golden Globe nominees—and Oscar contenders— tread new ground with their contributions this year. (see the full list of Best Original Song contenders here).
John brought to life two ceramic garden figures in animated feature “Gnomeo & Juliet,” while Cornell took on summarizing the life of the very real Sam Childers, a minister turned crusader in “Machine Gun Preacher.”
I recently spoke to both John and Cornell about their works (for Cornell fans, Kris Tapley’s two-part interview with Cornell earlier this year is a must read). John and longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote several songs for “Gnomeo & Juliet,” an uplifting retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” complete with a happy ending, but only two tunes ended up fitting into the final production: Golden Globe nominee “Hello, Hello,” John’s duet with Lady Gaga, and “Love Builds a Garden,” a touching song that plays over a montage about two plastic pink flamingos and their very real love story.
“We wrote five or six songs originally because you get a storyboard for an animation movie and [it] changes so much from the very first concept to the finished result,” John says. Among the songs left out was “The Sky Is Falling” featuring Lily Allen. “Some of the songs were really great, but they just didn’t fit. Three or four songs bit the dust and that’s the way, unfortunately, it happens.”
“Hello, Hello” plays over a pivotal scene when Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) first meet and tussle over an orchid. The full, upbeat Beatlesque tune appears over the end credits. John originally recorded the song on his own, which worked fine. However, when he realized where it would play in the movie, John says he felt “It really needed a female voice, so I asked [Lady Gaga] and she said absolutely. It fits so much better with the two of us singing because Juliet has a voice now and Gnomeo has a voice now. That just really happened by accident and kismet.” Their touring schedules prevented the two from recording together: Lady Gaga recorded her part in Norway.
Though not nominated for a Globe, the soaring “Love Builds a Garden” creates the whole back story of the brokenhearted pink flamingo, Featherstone. “That was my idea to use the old photographs and stuff [in the montage],” John says. The song reminds me of something that Harry Nilsson might have written and that was the template when I got the lyric.” John was originally slated to reunite with “The Lion King” lyricist Tim Rice for “G&J,” but Disney’s then studio head Dick Cook decided to make the movie a vehicle for John’s catalog so Taupin was enlisted. It marked the first time the two had worked together on movie music since 1971’s “Friends.”
Taupin and John wrote to storyboards, while Chris Cornell based his “Machine Gun Preacher” tune, “The Keeper,” from watching footage of the real Sam Childers and some advice from director Marc Forster. “He didn’t want me to write anything that was too literal, which was fine since I never do that,” Cornell says. Since Forster brought in Cornell before there was any film footage for him to write to, “I ended up going to [Childers’] website,” he says. “He has a matter-of-fact way to show what was going on that was amazing. I connected with it. There was a photo gallery and that’s really what I drew from.”
Additionally, Cornell invoked the spirit of Woody Guthrie, who, like Childers, traveled to places of turmoil in hopes of bringing calm. “He wrote these folk songs based on his being there,”he says. “To me, it was an obvious comparison just in the sense that if he were there, that’s what he would write.”
Even with these touchstones, Cornell still felt like he was “missing it” with his efforts, so he hopped on his mountain bike and, in nature, found the clarity he needed. “From that point to finishing writing it, it was an hour and a half,” he says. “The writing part was probably 20 minutes an the next hour and 10 was trying not to forget it.”
Though he was writing about a real person and specifically the movie, Cornell felt strongly that “The Keeper” had to stand on its own. “Sometimes, long after people have forgotten the film, they have an opportunity to come across the song,” he says. “The song can be a signpost and lead them back to the story....I didn’t know when ‘Live & Let Die’ came out as a song there was a movie called ‘Live & Let Die. I was probably 11 years old. It didn’t matter to me.”