Great things are being written and said about Rocketman, the epic musical fantasy about Elton John’s breakthrough years. The film follows the fantastical journey of transformation from shy piano prodigy Reginald Dwight into international superstar Elton John. This inspirational story – set to Elton John’s most beloved songs and performed by star Taron Egerton – tells the universally relatable story of how a small-town boy became one of the most iconic figures in pop culture. The film, now on release globally, also stars Jamie (Billy Elliot) Bell as Elton’s longtime lyricist and writing partner Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden as Elton’s first manager John Reid, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mother Sheila Farebrother.
IT SHOULD come as no surprise that conventional movie-making was never going to work for the telling of Elton John’s life story – it simply could not contain it.
Elton’s transformation from the shy, working-class piano prodigy Reginald Dwight into a global music superstar was as tempestuous, outrageous and plain dangerous as it was inspirational and brave. No regular movie was ever going to do it justice.
Welcome to Rocketman – a colourful musical odyssey that blurs the lines of fantasy and reality, fuses the worlds of music, fame and fashion, and stamps a glittery platform heel down on the cinematic rulebook.
Rocketman takes audiences on an uncensored journey through the life of an icon, with Elton’s most beloved songs – reimagined and updated in breakthrough musical and dramatic performances by the young cast – propelling and shaping the story.
“The idea,” says its director, Dexter Fletcher, “was to create something that would genuinely explode off the screen, a riotous joy-ride of imagination, celebration and drama.”
Elton John is played by Taron Egerton, delivering an astonishing performance that has seen him record new versions of some of John’s most famous songs.
As the film follows Elton from his English hometown of Pinner and along the yellow brick road of fame, addiction and heartbreak, we also meet the mother with whom he had had a troubled relationship (Bryce Dallas Howard), his manager and onetime lover, John Reid (Richard Madden), and his legendary lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), the best friend and creative partner of over 50 years without whom John might not have survived.
As Elton, who gave the cast and crew of Rocketman free reign to tell his story, says: “My life has been pretty crazy. The lows were very low, the highs were very high. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much balance in between.”
As for producer David Furnish (Elton’s husband), he knew from the beginning that the pop legend was interested in telling a fantasy version of his life, something that was larger than life, not as it happened exactly, but as the fantastical version of what might have taken place.
“And that was our starting point for the film that we wanted to make.”
For fellow Rocketman producer, Matthew Vaughn, it was important to find the right way to tell the story of a completely unordinary life. And he discovered it on his first read of Lee Hall’s screenplay.
“Lee had done this magnificent job,” says Vaughn, “of creating a musical that isn’t really a musical, a biopic that isn’t a biopic, a fantasy that is based on reality and a reality that is based on fantasy.”
As young Elton wrestles with his private image, his sexuality, his childhood troubles and his many adult addictions, he very publicly finds escape through the music that sees him explode onto the global scene.
He is empowered by an extraordinary stage persona with outrageous costumes, and a particularly unique view of the world through tinted, wide-eyed glasses. In the words of Rocketman’s acclaimed music director, Giles Martin, “Elton hits the piano keys as if to punch back at the planet.”
The result is a film (over 10 years in the making) that is as extraordinary as its subject.
“What these guys have done with my story is just astonishing,” says John. “It’s brutally honest and doesn’t pull any punches, but I can’t wait for audiences to see it and, hopefully, love it as much as I do.”
The seeds of the project were sown over a decade ago, backstage in Las Vegas. John was there with his husband, and Rocketman producer, David Furnish (the director of Tantrums and Tiaras and executive producer of the stage-show Billy Elliot The Musical), for his Red Piano Show that the pair had just opened there.
That show had taken the first steps of a deep dive in Elton John’s visual history, a phantasmagoria of costumes and musical iconography brought to life on the stage.
“And that triggered something inside Elton,” remembers Furnish. “He said to me, ‘It would be great to do a film about my life that captures that same sort of spirit.’ He didn’t want to do a straightforward biopic – he’s never been a fan of them – but he said, ‘You know, my life has been so larger than life that to tell it in a straightforward way just wouldn’t do it justice.”
“This story covers my life from before 1960, when I was a kid, to 1990, when I went into rehab,” says John. “It’s about my life when I started to become famous.
“That was an extraordinary and kind of surreal time, and that’s how I wanted the film to be. I wanted it to be fun and for it to not take itself too seriously, but, on the other hand, there are a lot of serious issues that had to be addressed with my drug addiction and my life and my upbringing.
“We had to get the balance right. And, for me, what was really important was that the film would be a musical because music was my life.”
Actor Taron Egerton, a leading man in the Kingsman movie series, was the perfect choice to portray Elton. Not only did he bare an uncanny physical resemblance to a young Elton, but he could sing.
“I wanted someone who could do an interpretation of me – not just by their acting, but with my music as well. Finding someone who could do that had always been incredibly hard. But then we met Taron Egerton. He is truly unique. He is the only person who could have done this.”
Elton John is, as Furnish admits, not an easy man to please. So, it’s testament to the quality of every aspect of the arrangements in Rocketman that Captain Fantastic himself is so delighted with the results.
Egerton trained his vocals and piano skills for five months to prepare for the role. And not only did Egerton get to record his own versions of songs so loved by the world but he also got to do the work at London’s Abbey Road Studios, which is “genuinely the most holy-shit, pinch-yourself moment” of his career to date.
“For my part,” says Egerton, “what always excited me about this project, aside from the honour of playing Elton John, was that there was a permission for the songs to be interpreted and the storytelling to be innovative and different.
“And the fact that it is a musical and that the songs are sung not only as performance pieces but as moments of introspection. That’s what makes it unique. And I have loved it. I have loved every single minute. I cannot tell you how proud I am that Elton John let me interpret his songs in this way.”
There’s an argument, of course, that Rocketman is the movie that Dexter Fletcher was born to make. This is the actor who started out in Alan Parker’s (the director remains one of his all-time heroes and inspirations) gangster-musical, Bugsy Malone, in 1976.
Thirty-seven years later he would make his own acclaimed musical, Sunshine On Leith. Then there was the fact that he had already directed Taron Egerton, the pair nailing another very unique British legend in Eddie The Eagle in 2015.
Has his entire career been building, piece by piece, to this very moment?
“I did say to Furnish recently that it feels that way,” laughs Fletcher now. “This movie is very personal to me. I connect to it. I’m enormously proud of it and I hope people get a lot of pleasure from it.
“When I read the Lee Hall script, I just knew how to do it. The storytelling allowed me to totally indulge all my crazy ideas. I knew I had a great platform to let loose.”
Together with music producer Giles Martin, it was choreographer Adam Murray who brought to life the series of stunning song and dance sequences that give Rocketman its propulsive heartbeat.
“The story and the scenes are what ground the film,” Murray says. “But the musical numbers are there to heighten any element of emotion the story is telling through the songs.”
And, when it comes to heightening, few are better qualified than the man who brought to life one of modern cinema’s most previously pumping soundtracks, the ’80s tub-thumper that was Ready Player One, for Steven Spielberg.
For Rocketman, Murray has delivered some enormous numbers that would make the classic MGM musicals blush. One, set to Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, was a creation that took 300 extras, 50 dancers and 12 weeks of prep to make real.
“And then, having rehearsed it to perfection,” remembers Murray, “the sequence gathered mothballs while the bulk of the film was being made. Then, when it came to actually shooting it, we had just one day to re-rehearse it before it went in front of the cameras.”
If that wasn’t challenging enough, consider this: the sequence in question didn’t just have hundreds of individual moving parts, it had to be achieved in one single, seamless take.
“Everyone needs to be in the right place, at the right time, on the right beat, or the sequence is lost,” says Murray. That the production would get that one shot in the can in just 19 takes is testament to Murray’s prowess and preparation.
Murray was on board with the production early in its conception, so was able to build the structure of these numbers from the ground up, to find ways to use Elton John’s music out of context and in a way that best served a narrative that, to put it mildly, has its fair share of ups and downs.
“This has genuinely been a true collaboration,” says Murray of the evolving process. “We’ve all come together as a team and really bounced off one another. The result is seamless. The dance numbers have become a part of the structure of the script. They don’t sit out as a separate entity; they are finely knitted into the film.”