An exuberant celebration of the legendary Elton John, Rocketman is not your ordinary music biopic. It’s a musical odyssey that blurs the lines of fantasy and reality and fuses the worlds of music, fame and fashion.
The seeds of Rocketman were sown over a decade ago, backstage in Las Vegas, where the Red Piano Show – a visual history of Elton John on stage, presented through a phantasmagoria of costumes and musical iconography – had just opened.
“And that triggered something inside Elton,” recalls John’s husband and Rocketman producer David 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.”
John wanted the film to present a fantasy version of his life, not as it actually happened, but what might have taken place. Screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) was enlisted to script this heightened telling, 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 a young cast – propelling and shaping the story. Hall was also given license to play with the chronology of John’s musical catalogue to best fit the “emotional truths” of the story.
“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.
“What I wanted to get across in the movie was the incredible price of fame, the incredible effect one’s upbringing has on you, how lonely it can be and what happens if you don’t address very quickly what you’re going through as a person in terms of your addiction and your behaviour patterns. But there has to be a sense of humour to all this as well.”
After ten years in development, John and Furnish approached friend and producer Matthew Vaughn, who had always wanted to make a musical and was immediately sold after reading Hall’s script.
“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.
“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,” he continues. “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. 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.”
The next step was finding the right actor to play Elton John and Vaughn immediately knew the ideal person for the role, having directed Taron Egerton in the Kingsman films.
Not only did Egerton bear an uncanny resemblance to the young Elton, he could also sing! However, the actor was naturally daunted by the opportunity.
“Coming in the wake of Bohemian Rhapsody, which is so unmistakably the sound of Freddie Mercury, this, for me, just became about singing the songs as well as I could,” says Egerton, who actually sang Elton’s famous ballad Your Song for his drama school audition, going on to record much of the film‘s soundtrack at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios. “With the music, I really needed to hear from [Elton] that he was OK with what was happening.”
“And then I heard him,” says John. “And it was instant. If someone was going to play me, I knew 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. He is truly unique. He is the only person who could have done this.
“What these guys have done with my story is just astonishing,” he adds. “It’s brutally honest and doesn’t pull any punches, and I can’t wait for audiences to see it and, hopefully, love it as much as I do.”