Cannes Film Fest 2019: Rocketman–Elton John Opens Up about his Musical Extravaganza

“This movie is about when I started to become famous,” says legendary musician Elton John about Rocketman, which took Cannes Film Fest by storm when it world premiered there last week.  “It was an extraordinary and surreal time, and that’s how I wanted the film to be.”

Taron Egerton in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

Paramount will release this enjoyable, rousing musical biopic in theaters in the U.S. and elsewhere this Friday, and based on initial critical response, I think it would be a commercial hit.
Conventional moviemaking was ruled out 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.
A grand epic musical odyssey that blurs the lines of fantasy and reality, Rocketman fuses the worlds of music, fame and fashion.  It take audiences on an uncensored journey through the life of an icon, with Elton’s most beloved songs propelling and shaping the story.  The dozen or so production numbers are reimagined and updated in breakthrough musical and dramatic performances by the young cast.
Director Dexter Fletcher says that “the idea was to create something that would genuinely explode off the screen, a riotous joy-ride of imagination, celebration and drama.”
In Rocketman, Elton John is played by Taron Egerton, who delivers an astonishing performance, based on his recording new versions of some of John’s most famous songs.
The film follows Elton from his English hometown of Pinner and along the yellow brick road of fame, addiction and heartbreak.  It begins with John’s troubled relationship with his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), a flighty woman, who doesn’t take him too seriously.
The other two central figures are 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.
Elton, who gave the cast and crew 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.”
Producer David Furnish knew that Elton John 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 producer, director Matthew Vaughn, it was important to find the right way to tell the story of a completely unordinary life.  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 unique view of the world through tinted, wide-eyed glasses.
The movie’s music director, Giles Martin, says: “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. The only way to tell his story is to live his fantasy.
“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 idea for a movie began 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 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.
“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.”
The pair needed someone to write the screenplay.  In one of many fateful moments in the history of this production, in 2000, John and Furnish had attended the Cannes Film Festival, the premiere of a “small” British film that would go on to do big things: Billy Elliot.
Jamie Bell, who played Billy, vividly remembers Elton John coming up to him at the party after the premiere in tears, affected deeply by the relationship between young Billy and his father in the movie. That profound experience had stayed with John and led to Furnish and him working with Billy Elliot’s
screenwriter, Lee Hall, on their stage version, Billy Elliot The Musical, five years later.
“Lee is British and has an innate understanding of working-class Britain in the 1960s, as well as the emergence of rock and roll in the 1960s and 1970s, and the language and the people and the way they lived,” says Furnish of the writer.
“We wanted him to really get inside all of that and nail the authenticity of that time. But we also said, ‘Let’s make the musical numbers big, large, fantastical.’”
Crucially, they also gave Hall license to play with the chronology of John’s musical catalogue, to not feel obliged to employ the tracks in the order that they were written, but to use the ones that best fit the “emotional truths” of the story they wanted to tell.
“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.  For me, what was really important was that the film would be a musical because music was my life.”
With the screenplay written, John and Furnish spent nearly 10 years developing the project. Thankfully, they knew the director and producer, Matthew
Vaughn. They’d become friends over the course of Vaughn directing John in his glorious extended cameo in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a movie in which the music icon has delirious tongue-in-cheek fun playing up his persona.
“That was very much a heightened version of Elton,” says Vaughn.  “I got to know him as a greatly talented, but also really sweet and gentle man, who can perform on command.”  Vaughn mentioned that he had always wanted to make a musical. “I knew that he loved Elton and loved his music,” notes Furnish, “so I said, ‘Look, we have this script. I’d love for you to just take a look at it and tell me what you think.’”
Vaughn, a producer renowned for knowing a hit when he sees one, and with the power to get them made to their fullest potential, read it and was sold.
“I got to know Elton John’s music as a boy in the ‘70s and I can really remember the first time I heard ‘Your Song’,” says Vaughn of his decision-making process. “It was such a unique voice and one of the few songs I knew the lyrics to immediately. It hit me hard as a kid. I love music, I wanted to be a musician.
One of the reasons I’m doing this film is that I have been desperate to find a musical to do. If you look at my films, as a director, they are heavily influenced by music and putting pitch to music and cutting it so they merge together. And I had been trying to find the right thing. You know, if you’re going to do a musical then it has to have great music that you can build everything around. When Rocketman came along, the music box for me was firmly ticked.”
But it wasn’t just that Vaughn had read and liked the screenplay; it was that he’d seen how it could play out from the pages. Not just that, he knew almost immediately who was going to play Elton John himself. Having turned Taron Egerton into a leading man in the Kingsman movie series, Vaughn was more aware of his capabilities than most.
Having then put Taron together with director Dexter Fletcher, for their movie about another British icon, Eddie The Eagle, Vaughn sensed instantly how
powerful a creative force he could assemble . He knew that Fletcher, who made
his acting debut as a young boy in Bugsy Malone back in 1976 and continued his love-affair with musicals with his second movie as a director, Sunshine on Leith, in 2013, was the perfect choice. He also knew that Egerton bore an uncanny physical resemblance to a young Elton John. More than that,
he knew the boy could sing.
Vaughn called Furnish. “If it was me in charge, I’d put in Taron and hire Dexter.” Furnish called him back. “How about we do it together?” “It just made sense,” says Vaughn now. “Dexter and I were trying to find our next project to do together.
I knew Taron, knew he could sing beautifully and I also knew that Taron’s audition piece for RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) was performing ‘Your Song’. So, there was a connection there.” Furnish agrees. “The pieces of the puzzle started to fit together. Matthew thought, and I agreed, that the combination of Taron and Dexter would be exactly what this film needed.”
“Elton always says, ‘I’m not a filmmaker. It’s not my world, and I’m very, very close to this story, so perhaps I can’t bring the objectivity that is needed to tell it from the right perspective,’” says Furnish.
What John does know is music. That is his world. The only question was whether Egerton was the right person. John recalls: “When I heard him, it was instant recognition. If someone was going to play me, he had to be able to 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, who is truly unique. He is the only person who could have done this.”