Elton John and Spike Lee discuss
Elton John and Spike Lee discuss "The Cut" at Cannes Film Festival. Photo: Anne McCarthy

France Today correspondent Anne McCarthy is on location in Cannes to cover the famous film festival. For more of her dispatches and reviews, click here.

Who would’ve thought Elton John would feel the need to reinvent three of his most iconic songs? After all, you don’t mess with perfection.

But Elton didn’t mess with it, he’s enhanced it.

In his latest creative venture, Elton John teamed up with YouTube, and approached them with an idea hair-brained enough to be brilliant: Hold a contest for directors to submit their ideas for music videos of: “Benny and the Jets,” “Tiny Dancer,” and “Rocket Man.”

After all, these (and many others) of Elton’s songs never got the music video treatment. The three were released in 1971, 1972, and 1973. As Elton told the audience at the screening on Monday at the Olympia Theater at Cannes: “I’m prehistoric!”

As soon as the competition was announced, applications poured in en masse from over 50 countries. Along with Elton, the judging panel included director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Grammy-winning music video director Melina Matsoukas (“Formation,” “We Found Love”), and co-founder of Dreamworks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg.

“Our songs are very cinematic,” said Elton, explaining the reason behind the new project. “I’ve been singing them nearly 50 years and never got sick of them. They tell stories.”

The “it factor” which made the contest winners stand out was that they each had a vision for the songs’ stories. The winners of the contest were: Majid Adin, who directed the video for “Rocket Man,” Jack Whiteley and Laura Brownhill for “Benny and the Jets,” and Max Weiland for “Tiny Dancer.”

The music videos each focused on a specific medium within the medium of video and song, as outlined in the contest: animation (Adin), choreography (Whiteley and Brownhill), and live-action creative concept (Weiland).

The standout among the three was Adin’s video for “Rocket Man.” (He said that when he first heard “Rocket Man” as a child it was translated into Farsi.) Adin, a refugee from Iran, lived on the streets of “the jungle” in Calais for six months, before making his way to London. “Majid’s story – his journey from Iran to Turkey to Greece to Calais to London – was so incredible, we just wanted him to do something,” said Elton. “It was a no-brainer.”

Adin’s video is semi-autobiographical, showing a man in a space suit, wandering through foreign territory, like London’s Tube, and being tossed around in a boat on the sea. He sees visions of a wife and a family, but they disappear. Animation director Stephen McNally collaborated with Adin on the video. Adin emphasized that it was not fully autobiographical, emphatically stating: “It’s about refugees.”

Elton spoke of the importance of shining light on new artists. “It’s always great to see new things from someone you’ve never heard of. It fills you with passion,” he said. “It was like giving the songs Botox,” Elton laughed.

The three music videos enjoyed their world premiere at the festival, followed by a Q & A with Elton, his long-time lyricist, Bernie Taupin, and the directors of the new videos. The talk was moderated by legendary Brooklyn-born filmmaker Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, The Original Kings of Comedy), who pointed out a momentous occasion that Bernie and Elton were celebrating this year: “Fiddy – as we’d say in Brooklyn – it’s been fiddy, fifty, years since you started making songs together.”

Elton recalled when, at age 20, he first met Bernie, who was 17. It was happenstance, and their meeting was all the result of a folder of Bernie’s lyrics landing in Elton’s hands. Of their meeting, Elton said: “It was kismet.”

“That was God,” said Spike Lee. “That was not an accident.”

Kismet, God, or accident – Bernie and Elton’s meeting (those many moons ago) remains just as important today as it was then, and these reimagined videos only affirm the power of their music.

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