Thanks to director Dexter Fletcher, Elton John’s successes and travails are transformed into the mega-pop star’s redemption song through the film ‘Rocketman.’ Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on March 25th 1947, he went from being a shy child prodigy to outrageous stardom and survived.
This English singer/songwriter/pianist/composer collaborated with lyricist Bernie Taupin on more than 30 albums making him one of the world’s best-selling musicians. He has had more than 50 Top 40 hits, seven consecutive number-one albums in the United States, 58 Billboard Top 40 singles, 27 Top 10 singles —four of which reached number two and nine reached number one. Through it all, Sir Elton Hercules John CBE consumed copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, had an numerous sex partners — especially once he fully came out — and spent millions as one of the world’s greatest shop-aholics. But as one of his songs proclaimed, The Bitch Is Back and John straightened himself out, found his life partner David Furnish, with whom he is raising two children and has conducted his long extended farewell tour.
Fletcher’s biographical fantasy renders Elton’s life into a fabulous “song & dance ” quasi-biopic, stringing together his tunes in such a way as to tell a narrative with a full emotional arc that presents his life story, albeit in a speedy, truncated, surreal way. Written by Lee Hall, it stars Taron Egerton as John (who sounds uncannily like the original) with Jamie Bell as Taupin. Titled after ‘Rocket Man,’ John’s 1972 hit, this biopic had been in development for almost two decades, going through studios such as Walt Disney and Focus Features, has had many directors and actors on board including Tom Hardy and Justin Timberlake. After creative differences halted an initial production in 2014, John took the project to Paramount Pictures, with Egerton and Fletcher signing on in 2018.
Premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it has received generally positive reviews. At the 73rd British Academy Film Awards it earned four nominations, including Outstanding British Film. The film also won both Best Original Song at the 77th Golden Globe Awards, Best Song at the 25th Critics’ Choice Awards and is nominated for Best Original Song at the 92nd Academy Awards for “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.” Egerton also got noms, and won the Golden Globe’s Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy Award.
Sometimes actor Fletcher appeared in Guy Ritchie’s ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,’ as well as many television roles as well as being a child actor in the film Bugsy Malone. He made his directorial debut with 2011’s Wild Bill (2011) and won acclaim for such indie fare as 2013’s ‘Sunshine On Leith’ and 2016’s ‘Eddie the Eagle.’ Fletcher replaced director Bryan Singer to finish the tail end of the Queen biopic, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ but due to DGA rules, he only received executive producer credit.
At a press event held at the Dolby Soho pop-up space (which had a celebration of the film installed at the time) earlier in 2019, the 53-year-old Englishman conducted this Q&A with a few journalists.
Q: Who’s responsible for opening that window into Elton’s heart, mind and soul?
DF: Well, I suppose, I am. We all are; our connection to Elton is profound. To do the man a service you have to love him, but to do that you have to love him in a very real way and not pull your punches. If we tried to sugarcoat it or make it self-serving then we’re not giving what the real story is. What we’re trying to do is look at the emotional content of what it is. What was happening to him as a person? What was he going through? Can you put the music and the drama together and does it stand up? If we don’t have that then it would just be a left turn that doesn’t ring true.
The challenge is keeping things on the rails. People ask what was Bernie going through at the time and I can’t deal with that. I made a film called ‘Rocketman’ that’s about Elton John. Of course, Bernie is a key part of that and his lyric writing is responsible for his relationship with Elton. But the Bernie Taupin movie is different from the Elton John movie and you have to get into the heart and mind of that. So it was about being true to that and not losing sight. That’s the challenge of any filmmaker, to keep it on the rails. So as ridiculous as I tried to make it sound, I did do it, it’s my job to keep it on track and in the editing process everyone else brings it together.
Q: The ‘Rocket Man’ song sequence in the movie encapsulates everything by taking a song we know in real life and launching it into the word of fantasy. How did you come up with the imagery in that scene?
DF: That’s a contribution of screenwriter Lee Hall. The image of him in the pool that’s In the script I read; what makes ‘Rocket Man’ particularly interesting is that it’s one of the few songs that crosses over from the fantasy element of this life that are out of control and these out-of-body experiences into the reality of the performance and then back again into something quite crazy and imaginative.
It’s the very backbone of the film in that he flies high, he burns bright, and that comes at a cost. It’s one of the great moments when you see him take that step behind that stage and you realize the story behind the curtain is about someone who has hit rock bottom. When he flies through the door and everything gets suspended in time, there [he is] sinking into the depths. But ‘Rocket Man’ becomes the musical spine of the film because of how it crosses from fantasy into reality, and back to fantasy.
Q: There’s a great sense of stagecraft in going from him falling from into the pool to the hospital.
DF: I have a great love of silhouettes as well. We went to that space for something else and I saw that huge glass window. I knew that at the right time of day I was going to get some beautiful silhouettes. The idea originally was that behind a lot of hospital screens, but once I saw that window with the sun behind it, it gave me the idea to create that balletic moment.
Q: That’s an example of something you can’t plan ahead for.
DF: That’s very much how I work. There are storyboards of course, but often times I’ll go somewhere and get taken up by an idea for a location and use that as a framing device. It’s important for me to find my locations as soon as possible and figure out what’s going to happen.
Q: Was there a point at which you worried about getting too fantastical?
DF: I worried about going too normal. Once those fantasy sequences started happening, I thought, ‘this is really exciting, this is really amazing, let’s make a whole film like this!’ But you’ve got to have a balance. And then you have a sequence which is fantasy and music together but in a very pedestrian or suburban setting. I just wanted to keep a connective tissue between them.
Q: How did you come up with that sequence spotlighting ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ which felt like a 1940s musical number?
DF: It said in the script that Reggie is running down the street and people are fighting when they sing and dance. That’s what I had to go on. I also wanted it to be about a young man breaking free from the bonds of his parents and family life and seeing the outside world. [It’s a] colorful and imaginative world full of cultural and musical influences. So the fairgrounds seemed like a good place to do that. It’s full of lights and color and magic. That gave me a backdrop to work with these interesting and diverse people that caused Elton to see it’s a wide world [out there]. You can’t deny the energy [to] something like ‘On the Town’ when you’ve got [Gene] Kelly and [Frank] Sinatra doing literally one of the first on-location musicals where they hit New York and they’re bouncing around. The excitement of that is something I’ve always loved so I tried to create this continuous storytelling that’s about him coming of age.
Q: In your collaboration with Taron Egerton, you have to be in simpatico to make this movie to work. What was your first meeting like?
DF: He and I first worked together on ‘Eddie the Eagle,’ which was a really good collaborative experience. Great actors search for truth in the moment and Taron and I talked about that a lot on ‘Eddie.’ So when ‘Rocketman’ came along, [producer] Matt Vaughn called me and said ‘Taron as Elton.’ I already knew from that sentence alone that there was something exciting about that. Taron fell into the groove on that. We just hit the ground running because we knew each other and wanted to work together. I knew he had this incredible [timbre] to his voice. There was work to do on that because he said he was more of a ballad singer and I had to nudge him towards more this rock kind of vocalization. Elton set the ball running. He said ‘don’t do an imitation of me, do your take on my songs.’
He was very clear about that with the songs and said, ‘Do what you got to do.’ We were doing a musical set to Elton John’s music but, in theory, it could be about anybody. It’s about Elton and his journey but I’d like to think there’s a universality to the story that means it’s not specific to Elton and that’s why it’s not a biopic. It’s Elton’s recollections and memories of how he felt at the time and what that song meant to him. ‘I Want Love’ wasn’t written until [much later (2001)] but I used it in a scene set in 1956 because it fit the story.
Q: What about the first meeting between you, Taron, and Elton?
DF: The first time I was in a room with Taron and Elton at the same time was during the rehearsal period. We had been in rehearsal for about six or eight weeks and Elton came along to hear the opening number. So when he came in, there was this incredible buzz and excitement for everyone involved. We were getting absorbed in all things Elton. He had no idea we were getting obsessed with him. Where did he grow up? What toys did he have? What kind of piano did he have? Where did he go to school? Who were his neighbors? Every department had to do that. And he was just saying, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that.’
There was a bit of childish excitement on Elton’s first day with us. The next time I really remember being in a room with him was at Cannes. Everything happened so fast. I was crying, he was crying, Taron was crying. My wife was just shaking her head in dismay. Elton generously let us go do it, and we’re not always free to do things the way we want or need. He understood that it had to become its own thing and it needed the freedom it had. You need the freedom to go to darker places and not worry [about] what would Elton think. He was actually fine with it, he said, ‘It’s a masterpiece, I love it!’ You can’t get better than that.
Q: Elton lived through this period, you were younger, and Taron wasn’t alive. How did your memories fuse with Elton’s and transfer to Taron?
DF: It’s about giving things historical context, helping Taron understand things that today we take as a given. What life might be like if you scrapped those things. There’s a fantastic documentary from 1971 when Elton first got back from America and he’s in his flat sitting by the piano talking about how they write songs. ‘Yeah, Bernie gave me these lyrics for this thing he’s called ‘€˜Tiny Dancer.” Elton goes to the piano and reads the first lines and plans how it’s going to be and says he wants to do it as a ballad. It’s basically 1971 footage of Elton John writing ‘€˜Tiny Dancer.’ It’s an incredible moment. That’s what I try to capture when Elton writes ‘€˜Your Song.’ He’s in his dressing gown and complaining that there’s egg on a piece of paper, but then writes one of the greatest pop standards of all time.
It’s about giving talent context. You can look at the material, but even if you talk about Elton’s mom, for example ‘€” she wanted to leave Elton’s father and be an independent woman in 1958, but she couldn’t get a mortgage, couldn’t have a credit card, things that we take for granted. iIn that kind of scenario, how does that impact you as a person if you’re a woman trying to get out of a loveless marriage? That gives you some historical context for why people were the way they were in that period. It’s part of mining the historical realities. Being gay in the UK at that time’€¦ It was de-criminalized in 1969, that’s only 50 years ago. You have to get into the mindset of being a criminal for nothing more than how you feel. It’s not like, ‘Oh no, there are no mobile phones then.’ It’s something more meaningful that you can have a discussion about.
Q: Was this ever conceptualized as a play? how you think about it; ow would it change it?
DF: I think that would be amazing if it could be re-imagined as something as glorious as a Broadway show. That would be extremely exciting. Who wouldn’t want to see that? But it wasn’t conceived for that. I conceived it for the screen, it’s very much a big palette. I know I can get on a crane and go really high to show 50 dancers jumping around a fairground. I like to use the cinematic elements. It would need to be re-conceived.
Q: How much did Taron or the screenwriter discuss the script with Elton; there’s a lot of stuff about his feelings that only Elton would know?
DF: Lee Hall, who did the original draft of the screenplay, is an old friend of Elton’s. They worked on the musical ‘Billy Elliot.’ A lot of the old draft is Lee sitting down with Elton and recording his thoughts. It’s a biopic, it’s about unpacking memories to understand who a person is. Then Taron and Elton became good friends on the set of ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle [Kingsman 2]’ [which Elton was in]. Elton was wowed by this guy. Things just aligned and when we started the film, Elton spent time at Taron’s house and gave Taron a small heart-shaped diamond and said, ‘This was the first diamond I ever bought.’ It must have been a really personal item. No matter how rich you are, it’s the first thing you bought when you made it that was really expensive. And Taron wears it throughout the rehab sequence.
So immediately there was this strong personal connection that plays into Taron’s commitment to the role. It was a great thing sitting down with Elton the first time who said, ‘Ask me anything, what do you want to know?’ And we danced around a few questions. We asked about what it was like at the Troubadour and we got into the nitty gritty about one night with John Lennon. That’s for the sequel.
Q: Costume designer Julian Day did great work with Elton.
DF: The beauty of what we’re doing is that it’s about memory, not a biopic, and memory is fallible. If I try to remember what this jacket is like in 10 years time it would look very different when I describe it because the memory plays tricks. I talked to Julian about doing it as Elton remembers it. We know the chicken man suit, but our version is larger and heightened because it’s his recollection. So that’s what got Julian excited, we didn’t have to be slavish. It’s so hard with a biopic because you relentlessly try to get every detail right and someone goes, ‘Yeah, wrong shoes.’
So I said let’s create a reality of his memory. The other thing I was proud of was I made a vow to say no to everything for the first week. So everybody is mad and then they come back with something really extraordinary. Which works until people want to kill me. Julian Day is phenomenal and said, ‘If I could make a costume that even Elton John wish he wore, then I’ll have achieved what I was trying to do.’ The one Elton saw was the orange devil thing and he said ‘I wish I had worn that.’
Q: How much of Elton’s technical sound did you research for the movie?
DF: The beauty is that we can use this modern technology to’€¦ Some of what Taron is doing is sung live, some of ‘Crocodile Rock,’ Your Song’ etc. But the beauty is in what you can do with sound mixing, the music and instrumentation when you have Giles Martin just say he’s going to pop over to Abbey Road and re-record that. You can layer it and build it and extract a bigger palette so you can play with it.
The wonder of the musical is that the projected image with music is as old as the cinema itself. The music is what brings it together. When ‘Your Song’ happens, it’s really simple. There’s a guy off-camera playing piano and Taron’s singing. Then you bring in the strings and you feel the tingle on the back of your neck. The audience feels how unifying music is when the right note is hit at the right time. It’s hard to resist or deny. It’s the wonder of where technology is moving that you get the gift of wonderful sound design.
Q: What Elton John song did you wish was in the movie for a more fantastical view?
DF: ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ is a great, great track and there was a time when it was going to be in there. It was around a sequence that was a suicide attempt. There were two suicide attempts in Elton’s life and the scene was written as more comical and I didn’t feel that was right because I thought it was quite a serious subject at the end of the day. ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ was Taron’s favorite song [but it didn’t make it into the film].
It’s an embarrassment of riches, there are so many great songs and the hits keep coming. There are over 20 songs in the film and maybe I put one too many. I even love ‘Nikita,’ but I’m weird like that.