STACK caught up with the stars of the Elton John fantasy-biopic, Rocketman.
As a prominent AIDS activist, Elton John, 72, has often pondered aloud why he should be alive today while the cruel disease took the lives of his friends Freddie Mercury and Rock Hudson.
And certainly fans will ask themselves the same question when they take a trip down Elton’s personal yellow brick road in fantasy-biopic Rocketman.
But don’t expect this to be another Bohemian Rhapsody.
Yes, Freddie and Elton were both wildly talented, flamboyant and deeply closeted men when they both hit the mother lode of success in the ‘70s. However, unlike Freddie, Elton is alive today to control the narrative, refusing to disappoint his fans by whitewashing the truth about his sexuality.
To this end, Rocketman – starring Kingsman’s charismatic Taron Egerton as the gay rock/pop icon and Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden as his early lover/manager – is co-produced by Elton’s husband David Furnish and directed by their friend, Dexter Fletcher.
Yet even Furnish admits to being surprised after viewing the final cut of this unique window on the man he has loved for the past two decades – despite having directed the documentary, Elton John: Tantrums & Tiaras, 22 years earlier.
“The mandate for the project was always that it wouldn’t be an out-and-out biopic; that it would lean into elements of fantasy,” says Egerton, 29, who relished stepping into the platform boots of the pop star from Pinner.
“We were lucky that Elton and David were very personally involved. It began with them and Elton has been fantastic in, quite frankly, letting me be a part of his life for the past couple of years and also befriending me, which has made the whole thing feel very personal and real.”
Just five years old when he first became aware of Elton, he recalls, “I fell in love with The Lion King at five and then when I was 12, Elton’s Greatest Hits came out and me and my stepdad – who my mum had just met and became a huge part of my life – would listen to it together and I’d sing I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues on the way to school.
“And then when I was 17, I auditioned for drama school and sang Your Song and didn’t get in!” laughs Egerton, who repeated the performance the following year and was accepted. “I knew it was a winner!
“So Elton has always been there. Back in 2016, when I was still barely able to process the fact that I’d been in a hit movie [Kingsman], for someone to say ‘Do you want to play Elton John?’ And then for me to ask, ‘Well how does Elton feel about it?’ And to be told, ‘He really loves the idea’. It’s just f–ing mental, f–ing insane.”
Filmed on location at England’s Bray Studios, Rocketman begins with Egerton’s Elton recounting his life through rehab as we learn his story from childhood [Bryce Dallas Howard playing his mum] through to the Royal Academy of Music and beyond.
Already familiar with director Dexter Fletcher’s style, having collaborated on Eddie the Eagle four years earlier, Egerton says, “Dex has this boundless enthusiasm and optimism and ‘can do’ attitude. He galvanises and enthuses everyone and is very playful in the best possible way.”
Ironically, it was Fletcher who was called in to edit Bohemian Rhapsody after director Bryan Singer was asked to step away.
When STACK meets with Egerton, he describes the project as “terrifying”, given that – unlike Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody – he would actually have to sing the beloved icon’s songs. “Because it was a musical and because it’s a fantasy, it was always a prerequisite that the actors sing.”
Chosen for the lead role after Tom Hardy bowed out, Egerton was thrilled when Jamie Bell was cast as Elton’s long-time songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin. “When you’ve got an actor of Jamie’s calibre you feel fortified and it gives you a sense of assurance – enough to put my fears in the closet,” he says, no pun intended.
Given that less is known about the lyricist, Bell, 33, was able to enjoy an “element of invention over Taupin’s character,” whereas Egerton didn’t have the same luxury.
Bell’s own history with Elton goes back almost 20 years. “I first met him after the premiere of Billy Elliot at Cannes and he was a mess; he was weeping because the film reminded him so much of his relationship with his father,” says the actor, who was a schoolboy when plucked from obscurity to star in Billy Elliot.
“Elton has been such a big part of my life and, in a way, a big part of everyone’s life. He’s such a survivor. He’s gone through so much stuff and he’s still around; he’s still going. I love him for that.”
Having spent time with the real Taupin, Bell muses, “It’s interesting to learn that there was actually a time when people rejected Elton as an artist. Like when he made Empty Sky and it only had limited radio play and then with his second album, Elton John, English people were like ‘Naaa. No thanks’. Which is mental – and that album had Your Song on it!
“He only went to LA as a last roll of the dice and played at The Troubadour in West Hollywood and crushed it. And it was only because of the people who were there that night who said, ‘Hang on. This guy has just moved 300 people to the point of euphoria. Who’s been sleeping on Elton John?’”
If Elton’s story is public record, Bell hopes the film sheds light on Taupin’s more private journey. “For Bernie there was this real need. If it didn’t work out with Elton he was going to go back to his old job on a chicken farm, where he’d scrape up dead chickens off the floor and put them in an incinerator.
“Elton had this amazing ear and Bernie is a poet who would lie in the tall grasses of post-war England and look at the clouds and fantasise. That’s where all this music comes from – fantasy.”
If Elton’s songs remain timeless then Egerton hopes new audiences might rediscover some gems. “For relatively young people like Jamie and I to go back and hear all the songs that made his name in the early ’70s was amazing. Songs like Take Me to the Pilot, Hercules and Border Song – you just go ‘F–ing hell’. It’s mind-blowing. That music was brilliant in the ’70s and it’s still brilliant now.
“This has felt like a hugely important thing to me and hopefully it will serve as some people’s introduction to Elton John,” he suggests.
“I feel like I’ve poured more of myself into it than I have anything else. It’s essentially been my life for the past two years with creating all the songs and recording them and re-recording them and then going back after we filmed. But I wouldn’t change a second of it – and I would do it all over again. And there are not many things I would say that about.
“And just getting to know Elton and genuinely feel a connection with the man, I get a bit emotional about it.”
Rocketman is in cinemas on May 30