The 'Nuanced, Complex Journey' Of Becoming Elton John

Jun 2, 2019
Originally published on June 3, 2019 12:24 pm

The glitter. The piano-playing. That voice. Based on a true fantasy, the story of Sir Elton John is being encapsulated with Rocketman, the larger-than-life biopic in theaters now. The film stars Taron Egerton in the lead role and was directed by Dexter Fletcher, the same director who finished the Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody after its original director, Bryan Singer, was fired.

When the feature first premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival in May, it got a four-minute standing ovation and made Elton John, who was in the audience, cry.

"He was watching some pretty turbulent bits of his life," Egerton says, "The movie doesn't pull its punches in that respect. But I think it was tears of joy. That was the overriding feeling. I think he really loves the movie. He went as far as to say that he wouldn't change a thing out it."

Egerton admits he welled up in the audience, too.

"I was very moved. I found it an overwhelming experience," he says. "I really felt like I was able to stretch myself, and frankly reveal something of myself — reveal something of who I feel I am through the prism of Elton."

"Taron was asked to dig extraordinarily deep from his own personal experience in order to convey the huge breadth of emotion that we're endeavoring to tackle over 35 years of Elton's life," Fletcher says. "It's not kind of 'Oh, he was happy and then he was sad.' There's a lot more nuanced, complex journey that needed to be charted."

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John and his husband, David Furnish, were producers on the film and Fletcher says having them there to consult was helpful in order to strike balance in the film's story line. But although Rocketman is an authorized biography, it's not hagiography.

"They were very clear with us from the offset that they were going to let Dex go and realize his vision for the movie," Egerton says. "They knew that it was a kind of no-holds-barred iteration of this story, but they weren't breathing down our necks the whole time, or vetting us or censoring us in any way."

Egerton and Fletcher say having John around to consult and to see the finished product was a joy to be able to do "while he's here and alive and well and kicking."

The film also doesn't shy away from John's low points in life. In one of the opening scenes of Rocketman John lists all his vices while in rehab — from "weed and prescription drugs to anger management."

Taron Egerton as Elton John (right) and Dexter Fletcher on the set of Rocketman
David Appleby / Paramount Pictures

"Elton is here to defend himself if the film strays into territory that people might want to really take issue with," Fletcher says. "Whereas other films don't necessarily have that advantage. There's a real strength to that. Elton is very clear in his mind about who he is, and very at peace with that."

The movie is rated R, one of the reasons being the portrayal of homosexuality on-screen. Fletcher says compared to Bohemian Rhapsody, which drew criticism for not showing the full picture of Freddie Mercury's sexuality, Rocketman is more self-effacing.

"Bohemian Rhapsody is a very different animal. Freddie isn't around to defend himself. The only people who can defend Freddie are the people who are involved in that film," Fletcher says. "Our film tackles it because Elton has no qualms about who he is. Elton John wears glasses and plays the piano. These are two facts that we can't omit from the film. He happens to be gay as well. We can't omit and neither do we want to omit those facts from the film, because it helps make him who he is."

One of the other facts about John is, of course, his fantastic, opulent sense of style. Egerton says getting to try on so many different costumes was one of the highlights of the production for him. John even gifted Egerton one of his own treasured jewelry pieces for the film.

"I love the sort of signature costume of the movie, which is the orange neoprene outfit," Egerton remembers. "With that costume, I also wear a very beautiful diamond earring, which was the first one that Elton bought in 1972, and he made a gift of it to me about a year ago. ... So as that costume gradually falls away over the course of the movie, and the sort of headpiece comes off, you will catch a glimpse of Elton's first-ever diamond earring."

Rocketman is in theaters now. Listen to Egerton and Fletcher's full interview with NPR's Lulu-Garcia Navarro at the audio link.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Sir Elton John is one of the world's bestselling musicians. The singer-songwriter and pianist has sold more than 300 million records and produced greatest hits like "Candle In The Wind," "Crocodile Rock" and, of course...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKET MAN")

ELTON JOHN: (Singing) Rocket man...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The new biopic "Rocketman" takes us behind all that success and reveals a side of John we have never seen before. The film stars Taron Egerton in the title role. You may know him from the "Kingsman" movie franchise.

Taron, welcome to the program.

TARON EGERTON: Hey, thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Also with us is director Dexter Fletcher. He was the person to finish Oscar-winning "Bohemian Rhapsody" after its original director was fired.

Hello.

DEXTER FLETCHER: Hello, hello.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So because this is a film about a living legend, I want to start with Elton John's reaction to this film. No pressure - but is it true he saw this for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival at its premiere with you both?

EGERTON: That is true. I think he'd seen bits, sections, trailers.

FLETCHER: Yeah. And he'd heard the music, yeah.

EGERTON: And he'd heard all the music, yeah.

FLETCHER: Yeah.

EGERTON: But he hadn't seen the thing all completed. And neither had I, actually. It was the first time I saw it completely first.

FLETCHER: Well, in fairness, nobody really had because I'd only finished it four days before that.

(LAUGHTER)

FLETCHER: So it was only...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Leaving it to the last minute.

FLETCHER: Well, it's just - it's how it happened. You know, we were just on this really tight schedule.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it seems also a little bit risky. (Laughter) I mean...

FLETCHER: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Forgive me for saying (laughter).

FLETCHER: That's how we live our lives. That's us.

EGERTON: We live for danger, Lulu.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're sitting next to him in the darkened theater. And I imagine you were wondering what his reaction was going to be.

EGERTON: Yeah, of course. I mean, I won't pretend that I wasn't confident in it. I know how hard we worked. But, you know, we got to the last act and the last sort of half an hour of the movie, and Elton was sobbing. And, you know, the lights came up. And we got this spectacular four-minute standing ovation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You made Elton John cry.

EGERTON: Yeah. Well, you know, he's watching some pretty turbulent bits of his life, you know? The movie doesn't pull its punches in that respect. But I think it was tears of joy. You know, it was the overriding feeling, I hope, from him, you know? I think he really loves the movie. He went as far as to say that he wouldn't change a thing about it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

FLETCHER: Yeah. I think it's that good tears thing, you know?

EGERTON: Yeah.

FLETCHER: When you just get a good cry on and - get it all out.

EGERTON: Yeah, exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Taron, I have to say it looked like you were kind of crying too. I watched that bit.

EGERTON: No, I have no idea what you're talking about.

FLETCHER: No, no.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

EGERTON: I didn't cry.

FLETCHER: He had something in his eye.

EGERTON: I don't cry. I'm a real man.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

EGERTON: No. Yeah, I was. I was very moved. I find it an overwhelming experience. You know, this was the role where I really felt like I was able to stretch myself and, frankly, reveal something of who I feel I am through the prism of Elton.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain. What does that mean?

EGERTON: Well, look. You know, when you are acting, you don't become someone else. You're revealing sides of you through a character, you know? You're laying yourself bare. And particularly, in a movie like this, which is quite raw, you know, that's quite an exposing place to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROCKETMAN")

RICHARD MADDEN: (As John Reid) You're on stage in 15 minutes.

EGERTON: (As Elton John) You're the big-shot manager. You make my excuses. Tell them I'm indisposed breaking my mother's heart.

FLETCHER: Taron was asked and required to dig extraordinarily deep. It's not kind of, oh, he was happy, and then he was sad. There's a lot more nuanced complex journey that needed to be charted.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say that Elton John and his partner David Furnish were producers on the film. This was an authorized biography, if you will. But it wasn't a hagiography. How involved was he in the telling of his own story?

EGERTON: In total honesty, you know, I mean, the script was developed by Elton and David's production company. But they were very clear with us from the offset that they were going to let Dex go and realize his vision for the movie. But they weren't breathing down our necks, you know, the whole time or vetting us or, you know, censoring us in any way. I think that's why we were able to be quite creative.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think they wanted to have this story told?

EGERTON: I think there's a great story to tell there. Elton's life has been one that's less ordinary and...

FLETCHER: And something to be celebrated as well. Yeah. I think...

EGERTON: And something to be celebrated - absolutely. And I think there's a great joy in doing that while he's here and alive and well and kicking and...

FLETCHER: Elton is here to defend himself if the film sort of strays into territory that people might take issue with. There's a real strength to that. You know, Elton is very clear in his mind about who he is and very at peace with that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about how the film begins. Speaking of demons and examination of those, here's John in rehab, talking about his vices.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROCKETMAN")

EGERTON: (As Elton John) And a bulimic - I'm also a shopaholic who has problems with weed, prescription drugs and anger management.

That's me. I'm in that bit. That's me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

FLETCHER: Good tease - you tease brilliantly.

EGERTON: Anger management.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why anchor the film there? Why start the film there?

EGERTON: I mean, that's a director question, really.

FLETCHER: It is. When I read that first in scripts, I was like, this is great, because we know the ride we're going on. This very clearly sets out our story. It's like a list of seven deadly sins almost. We have, like, this really interesting package here that - where he's immediately sitting down and getting ready to start pulling apart and unfold. And so we know that there's great music, but do we know much about these other huge aspects of his life? And, for me, that speech there was the doorway to where we go. And that's why the camera just sits and watches Taron deliver that speech. It's so important that he draws us in there. It's a big, dramatic, key moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The film is rated R. And one of the reasons is the film's portrayal of homosexuality. Dexter, I know that one of the main criticisms of "Bohemian Rhapsody" is that it didn't show the full picture of Freddie Mercury and his sexuality. So was it important for you to bring this into this film?

FLETCHER: I mean, having worked on both films, what's very clear is I think it was also about how Elton is around here now, you know? He's part of our process, whereas "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a very different animal. Freddie isn't around to defend himself. The only people who can defend Freddie are the people who are involved in that film, you know? I'm not the author of that film. Our film tackles it because Elton has no qualms about who he is. Elton John wears glasses and plays the piano. These are two facts that we can't omit from the film. He happens to be gay as well. We can't omit - neither did we want to omit those facts from the film because it helps make him who he is.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the other facts about Elton John is his fantastic, glamorous capes and body suits. And so I must ask you, Taron, your favorite because there are some - a lot of costumes in this (laughter).

EGERTON: There are. There are. And, you know, every day was a new delight of something else to slip into or...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) I was envious of some of those shoes.

EGERTON: ...Wrangle myself into. I do love the sort of signature costume of the movie, which is the orange neoprene outfit. Elton kind of has infused it with a bit of Elvis Presley in there. And the sunglasses - you know, the heart-shaped sunglasses. With that costume, I also wear a very beautiful diamond earring, which was the first one that Elton bought in 1972. And he made a gift of it to me...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, wow.

EGERTON: ...About a year ago. So as that costume gradually falls away over the course of the movie and the sort of - the headpiece comes off, you will catch a glimpse of Elton's first-ever diamond earring, which I treasure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Taron, you got to sing with Elton John at the Cannes Film Festival. I just want to listen to a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TARON EGERTON AND ELTON JOHN: (Singing) And I think it's going to be a long, long time till touchdown brings me round again to find I'm not the man they think I am at all, oh, no, no, no.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was that like?

EGERTON: I felt very chilled. Actually, Giles Martin, our musical director - I think he saw that I was a bit fidgety before. And he just walked past me. And he just went, might be the last time you do this...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

EGERTON: ...And just walked off.

(LAUGHTER)

EGERTON: And it was the perfect thing to say to me because I just sort of went, you haven't got time to stress over it. Just enjoy it. And that's what I did, and I loved every second of it. And it was a beautiful end to the perfect day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Taron Egerton and Dexter Fletcher. Their movie "Rocketman" is out in theaters now.

Thank you both.

EGERTON: Thank you.

FLETCHER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M STILL STANDING")

JOHN: (Singing) I'm still standing, yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm still standing, yeah, yeah, yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.