LOS ANGELES — The image of Elton John in bejeweled stacked shoes, garish glasses and colorful costumes will forever be a part of the 1970s. But these days, he presents a very different image — both professionally and personally.
“As I grow older, I’m much more content in my own skin,” says John, who is dressed in black and wearing a pair of John Lennon-style sunglasses. The 63-year-old music icon is doing interviews at the Four Seasons Hotel for his upcoming animated film “Gnomeo & Juliet.”
“I really don’t have any more ambitions other than I just want to work and do excellent stuff,” John says. “The element of surprise in this business is what makes us love it. One day, you’re sitting by the phone waiting to do something — or not doing anything — and then the next day you have the chance of a lifetime.
This is the third film produced by John and his partner of 17 years, David Furnish, through their Rocket Productions. The animated take on “Romeo and Juliet,” told through garden gnomes, was 11 years in the making. It finally hits theaters Friday.
Originally, the movie was to have an eclectic soundtrack. Disney executives suggested John write new songs to mix with tunes he created with Bernie Taupin (his songwriting partner for 44 years).
John initially balked. He had never created an entire film soundtrack. But he felt better about the process after turning over the music decisions to director Kelly Asbury and music producer James Newton Howard.
“Although it’s all our back catalog, and a couple of new songs, it doesn’t feel overbearing like it’s an Elton John movie. It feels like ‘Gnomeo & Juliet’ with some good music in it,” John says. “I’m glad it turned out that way.”
John learned a lot about making animated films while creating music for “The Lion King,” especially about collaboration and compromise. He has to leave his ego at the door because songs get cut if they don’t move along the story in a film or on stage.
John’s main role on the production team was to use the clout he’s earned through 38 gold records, six Grammy wins, a Tony and an Oscar. He would call each time a new boss took over at Disney to make sure they weren’t going to drop the project.
Being Elton John also helped land voice talents, including Lady Gaga, his duet partner for the original tune “Hello, Hello.” At first John says he had to “torture” Lady Gaga to get her to agree to sing the number, but he says the pair became friends when she performed at an AIDS benefit at his home.
“Because she’s one of my new best friends and I love her to death, it was nice that she was able to do it, and it worked out brilliantly,” John says.
The pair also performed together at the 2010 Grammy Awards. John says being in front of a live audience is more enjoyable than ever.
“The older I get, I think I’m singing better live. I really appreciate my performing so much better now that I am older. I don’t take it for granted anymore,” John says. “I relish and cherish it more than anything else because you never know what the performance is going to be.”
John says the best part about his life today is the balance he feels when he comes off the stage, which comes from Furnish. In December, the couple adopted a child, Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John.
John never imagined he’d ever be a father, and he’s happy he changed his mind — other than having to deal with dirty diapers.
“Children are extremely important. They are the future of the world. As long as David and I can bring him up to be a loving and compassionate boy, I’ll be very happy. I love this,” John says. “Obviously, it’s been the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me — after meeting David.
“It’s been very relaxing because this little soul you are feeding and bathing and telling bedtime stories to is a blank palette, a blank canvas. All he needs is love and nurturing. It’s the most wonderful feeling.”
Fatherhood is but the latest step in John’s uncharted life. He’s always gone with opportunities that come his way, such as writing the music for “Lion King.” The film gave John — who to that point had just been touring and making records — the opportunity to write for stage and film scores.
In the 1990s, John would have thought it madness to think he’d write a song about a warthog or make a movie about garden gnomes. He looks back and realizes those moments have helped change his life and make his career so joyous.
“It’s the things that come along that completely surprise you,” John says. “Things you never thought you would do.”
He’s got no idea where his life will go next, except that he won’t try ballet or sing at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding. John dryly suggests the royal couple will choose someone like Barry Manilow, who’s “younger and better looking.”
The only thing certain in his future is making a movie about his life. A script has already been written.
“Obviously it’s not going to be your regular run-of-the-mill film,” he says. “My life has been kind of crazy.”