Welcome to Rocketman – an epic 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.
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.
It 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.
“This movie is about when I started to become famous,” says Elton John. “It was an extraordinary and surreal time, and that’s how I wanted the film to be.”
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.”
Directed by Dexter Fletcher (Bohemian Rhapsody) and written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), the film follows the fantastical journey of transformation from shy piano prodigy Reginald Dwight into international superstar Elton John.
“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.”
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.
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 will also meet the mother he had a troubled relationship with (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.
Rocketman also stars Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mother Sheila Farebrother.
For producer David Furnish, he knew from the beginning 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 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. I
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.”
How Rocketman First Took Flight
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 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.”
For the next step, the pair needed someone to write the screenplay, and they knew just the man for the gig. In one of the many fateful moments that have powered this production, in 2000, John and Furnish had attended the Cannes Film Festival, and found themselves at 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 on the French coast 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. So, when it came to who should be responsible for writing this heightened take on John’s life, they were in no doubt on who to collaborate with on the story.
“Lee is British and has an innate understanding of working-class Britain in the ’60s, as well as the emergence of rock and roll in the ’60s and ’70s, 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. And, 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 and had still yet to get it over the start line. Thankfully, they knew a man who knew one or two things about making enormous – and enormously successful – movies: 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 that saw the music icon have 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.”
One day, over coffee – and in another of those fateful pieces of the jigsaw of Rocketman’s genesis – Vaughn happened to mention that he had always wanted to make a musical.
“I knew that he loved Elton and loved his music,” remembers 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. And, 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 for Rocketman.
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.”
There was, of course, one more man who needed to be sold on the idea, Elton John himself.
“Elton always says, ‘Look, 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 he does know is music. That is his world. The only question was whether Egerton was the right man to live in it for two years.
“And then I heard him,” says John, with a smile. “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.”
“We always felt we wanted to be irreverent and make sure the audience feels like it’s getting a glimpse into the life of a man who’s had a notoriously turbulent time,” says Egerton of the driving force guiding the trajectory of Rocketman. “But it’s also so important to make the fans happy and make Elton likeable. This is a raw, human story, but it’s also a celebration of a truly great man and what we can learn from him.”
“This movie is very personal to me. I connect to it.” says Fletcher. “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.”
Of all the movie’s many achievements, maybe that’s its most significant. Its ability to make the fantastical root itself in a universal reality. “I think that’s true,” says Furnish. “Our film is about the fact that if you don’t learn to love yourself, if you don’t get to that point in your life and you keep sort of throwing it into the backseat of the car as you’re driving forward, it will catch up with you. You can’t run away from it. That’s what happened to Elton, and that can happen to anyone. You can change the way you present yourself to the world, but if you don’t work on yourself from the inside and start to accept yourself, you’re never going to find true happiness.”
That celebration of humanity, of the things that make us all at once individual and the same, is a message that is arguably more relevant than ever before in the divided, divisive world we live in today. As Taupin says, John’s life was “never ordinary” and Rocketman acts as a reminder of the need for people to celebrate their differences, not fight them.
“If that message comes out of this then that’s fantastic,” says John. “I was dishonest about who I was for a time. That’s what addiction is about – being deceitful and dishonest and covering your tracks. But if you do that you hate yourself, because you become someone you don’t recognize any more.” Perhaps, just as his music has united people for six decades, his movie can do the same. “Once I realized that it was honesty that mattered most, I never struggled because it was such a wonderful relief to not have to live that life anymore,” says John.
“To get up in the morning, to walk my dog, to meet people who had the same problems that I did, to share them. I was never a good communicator. I foolishly thought that cocaine was the kind of drug that, because it made me talk, helped me communicate. But what I was communicating was total bullshit and nonsense. Honesty is the answer, getting your darkest secrets out, unloading all the baggage that you’ve had your whole life from childhood. Get it out. Talk about it. I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t done that.”
Mirroring his own ethos, Rocketman is therefore an open and honest exploration of John’s struggles, always favouring the truth instead of shying away from the more difficult and troubling moments in his life. And, for all the filmmakers, that was a very deliberate choice.
“I hope that to see Elton’s life and then see where he is today will make people realize that life is a journey,” says Furnish. “It’s not straightforward, it’s not easy, we all feel disconnected sometimes, but you can always come out the other end. I think people will find inspiration in that.”
Or, as Howard has it, “Elton John is unquestionably an icon for millions, but if there is one quality that stands above everything else it’s his authenticity. And his courage. The courage to be authentic. He’s someone who expressed himself radically, unapologetically. I think he gave permission to so many people to be authentic to themselves. He is a treasure for all of us because he gives us permission to celebrate being our wild, crazy, extreme, imperfect selves.”
“It’s hard to put into words what this whole thing has meant to me,” Egerton says. “The experience of playing Elton has genuinely been nourishing to my life. Going hand in hand with that, there was just getting to know him. I feel so lucky. He gave me no advice how to play him and as a support, he has been very present, but he has not been someone who lent on me or guided me. He knows, because of what he’s been through in his life, that you have to give someone space to get the best out of them. He gave me real license and I am so grateful for that. I’m proud to say that through this, Elton John has become a friend.”
“My life has not been dull,” says Elton John, in something of an understatement. “What I wanted to get across from 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 behavior patterns. But there has to be a sense of humor to all this as well.”