Sherlock Gnomes — the animated sequel to 2011’s Gnomeo & Juliet, executive-produced by Sir Elton John and co-produced by John’s husband, David Furnish — features plenty of classic Elton tunes, from “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” to “I’m Still Standing.” But the film’s splashiest musical number is soundtracked by a new tune, “Stronger Than I Ever Was,” performed not by John but by Mary J. Blige.
John tells Yahoo Entertainment that coming up with the sassy soul song was a challenge for him and his songwriting partner of 50 years, Bernie Taupin. However, thanks to Blige’s personal connection to the empowerment anthem’s lyrics, everything came together.
“It worked out incredibly, because I knew it was going to be Mary J., so I had that in mind when I wrote the melody,” John reveals. “The words, ironically enough, when she did the track in Los Angeles, she’d just come through a breakup with her husband.”
“Bernie and I have never written a song like this. We knew it was going to have an uptown-funky vibe on it,” says John. “I said, ‘I’ve got to write this song for Mary J. Blige, play me something!’ So they played current music, and he and I had to write a kind of R&B-type thing for her to sing. It’s not the sort of song I would normally write for myself.”
When Blige and John entered the recording studio, it was clear that the tune was perfect for the R&B diva. “She said, ‘This is the easiest song for me to sing, because it just hits the nail on the head what I’m going through.’ It was very strange, that — she sang it in 10 minutes. I mean, she just gave it a roll, because she was going through that,” John marvels.
Blige recently divorced her husband of more than a decade, Martin “Kendu” Isaacs — who was also her manager — and she has been very candid about her heartbreak in various interviews (and even onstage at Clive Davis’s pre-Grammy gala last year). So it’s not surprising that she related to Taupin’s lyrics, like “Do I look like I need you? /I’m super-deluxe, new, improved/Better shape, better off/Stronger than I ever was” and “I’d never ever take you back /I’d walk on fire and broken glass/It’s sister time, I’m here to say … I never really liked you anyway!”
Blige told Variety last year that she drew on “a lot of my own heaviness from my own misery that I was living in that horrible marriage” for her portrayal of Florence in the Netflix drama Mudbound, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. However, for her Sherlock Gnomes character — “fabulous” alpha-female Irene — she went upbeat and uptempo, dedicating “Stronger Than I Ever Was” to her no-good ex (the titular character, voiced by Johnny Depp) and putting Sherlock in his place.
“[Mary] doesn’t give anything less than powerful performances. That’s why I love her so much,” says John.
Clearly, the feeling is mutual, as this isn’t Blige’s only collaboration with John. She recently recorded a track for the Elton John/Bernie Taupin tribute album Revamp, which will also feature remakes by Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, the Killers, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Alessia Cara, Sam Smith, Florence & the Machine, Mumford & Sons, P!nk with Logic, Q-Tip with Demi Lovato, and Queens of the Stone Age.
As for John’s own animated appearance in Sherlock Gnomes — a brief cameo as a glittery pink, piano-playing gnome — he says when he hits the road on his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour this fall, he won’t be rocking any gnome costumes. “I know I could probably pull it off,” he chuckles, “but I wouldn’t think I would wear the gnome outfit. I sang ‘Your Song’ in the original [Gnomeo] movie, and I cracked up, because I didn’t know that [myself as a gnome] was going to be in the movie. When it came on, I just burst out laughing. My kids love it, of course. They would love me to be a gnome.”
Sherlock Gnomes hits theaters Friday, March 23. Revamp (along with an all-star companion compilation of country Elton covers, Restoration) comes out on April 6. Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour kicks off Sept. 8 in Allentown, Pa.
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