Taron Egerton has to deliver a version of Elton John for Rocketman, a film the singer is backing about his early career. Dan Cairns meets its cast and director.
August 25, 1970: Laurel Canyon, California. Elton John, his co-writer Bernie Taupin and his manager (and lover) John Reid are attending a party at the home of Mama Cass following Elton's debut show on American soil, the first of six nights at the Troubadour, West Hollywood. The residency is something of a gamble for the singer's British record label, which is beginning to have doubts about him as a performer, no matter how good his songs are.
Something alchemical occurs that night. Almost out of nowhere, the man who will soon become synonymous with outrageous costumes and incendiary live shows first makes his presence felt. It was, says the film director Dexter Fletcher, "a life-changing moment".
October 17, 2018: A boggy wood in Buckinghamshire. An open-top Cadillac sweeps up the drive to the Mamas and the Papas singer's house — or, rather, the version of it that a team of set builders have erected in the English countryside.
Fletcher, his cast and crew are shooting a scene for Rocketman, a film that tells Elton's story from childhood to rehab, and a project all involved in are at pains to point out is nothing like Bohemian Rhapsody (though they'd love similar box-office takings, which are now approaching the $1billion mark), and is certainly not a biopic. "It's a musical experience," says Jamie Bell, who plays Taupin opposite Taron Egerton's Elton. "It's absolutely not a by-numbers biopic." Oof.
Recreating an LA summer in sodden, autumnal Bucks is a bit of a stretch, but that's what the editing suite is for. Period pieces litter the set: a Beetle, a Mustang, a beach buggy, a Corvette. Extras mill about, all beads, kaftans, hot pants and flares. Inside the house are a sitar, a vintage fridge and a turntable, LPs strewn across the frayed Persian and hessian rugs, and, on the wall, a poster for a Caravaggio exhibition at an American museum.
One of Fletcher's earliest acting roles was in Derek Jarman's 1986 film about the artist. So that was deliberate, right? "Well spotted," the director chuckles. "Yes — a little dig from the art department. It took me a while to notice it."
Fletcher was brought in to complete Bohemian Rhapsody when its original director, Bryan Singer, was fired. You get the sense — maybe it's the way his face tightens and his voice rises when the subject comes up — that he might have made a completely different (and better) film had he been there from the start. He's certainly in the driving seat on Rocketman, among whose producers are Sir Elton and his husband, David Furnish.
On the day last month when we met up again at Abbey Road Studios for a chat, and the screening of 15 minutes of footage, a news story had run claiming that a scene showing Elton and Reid (played by Richard Madden) in bed together, their "bare bottoms on view", may be cut to nab the film a prized PG-13 rating in the US. (BoRhap was rated PG-13 there.)
Fletcher neither denies nor concedes that there is nudity in his film, but he is bullish on the question of who gets to decide on the final cut. "Sorry, I'm the director," he says. "It's my f****** film. I haven't been restricted by anyone or anything. Obviously, I get notes from producers, and we all have a vested interest in getting the film seen by as many people as possible. But in terms of control, I'm making the film I wanted to make, and I'm responsible to the audience. [Paramount] green-lit this film, they saw the script. It's pure speculation." In other words, if cinemagoers see bare buttocks, that news story was mere mischief-making. Watch out for that rating, though.
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Sir Elton himself is crystal-clear about what he wanted the film to achieve. "A movie about my life was never going to be able to be a straightforward biopic. It needed to be fantastical and theatrical, while at the same time being truthful. I wanted it to be completely honest and tell my story, warts and all."
Rocketman opens in 1990, as the singer enters rehab for multiple addictions. Fletcher's masterstroke is to use this as the film's framing device, with Elton looking back over his life and career. "That whole era had a wild, fantastical feeling to it," the singer says, "and that bold and flamboyant energy is something we knew we needed the actors and director to bring to the screen."
The recollections of a broken man, hanging together by a thread, become a springboard for the songs.
"An unreliable narrator of his own story" is Fletcher's description of Elton at this point in his life. And very grateful he is for the haziness of that recall. "It's a brilliant storytelling device," the director says, "and it gives us the freedom to treat it as fantasy. And we've all done that with stories about our past — where we're either lying to ourselves or lying to other people."
We watch Elton resisting his therapist's inquiries or weaving off into make-believe and denial. "So you see him saying, 'Oh, my dad was always hugging me, it was so embarrassing,"' Fletcher continues. "Then we see the dad doing the absolute opposite. At another point, the therapist says, 'Let's talk about your childhood.' And Elton goes, 'There's nothing to tell.' And young Elton is suddenly there, and leads him back to the streets of Pinner."
Fletcher uses this freedom to launch endless flights of fancy: Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting soundtracks a vast dance routine in a fairground; The Bitch Is Back accompanies those childhood memories in Pinner; Rocket Man scores a scene set at the bottom of a swimming pool. Chronology is wayward — in an early meeting with his label, Elton's run-through of song snippets includes I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues, a good 10 years before it was written. And there is the occasional blunder. A Yamaha grand piano in the Duke's Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, in 1958? Really? Another Yamaha grand appears in the Troubadour show, which may or may not be a coincidence.
Singing these newly recorded versions of the songs — rearranged, often radically, by Giles Martin, whose extensive work on the Beatles catalogue will have prepared him for handling a songbook as illustrious as Elton's — are Egerton and, in the case of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Bell.
Egerton had covered Elton's 1983 hit I'm Still Standing in the animated musical film Sing, but he was a bundle of nerves, he says, when it came to voicing a dozen or more of his songs. The singer was quick to advise him. "He said to me very early on, 'Stop trying to sound like me.' So it was more about capturing his spirit than doing a carbon copy."
Martin, who coached Egerton for 18 months, was on high alert for anything resembling imitation. "I remember saying to Taron, 'You sound like a cassette copy of a cassette copy. You need to sound like you do in the film.' It absolutely couldn't be, 'Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be Elton John.' Stuff like that got knocked out immediately."
At the core of the film are Elton's relationships with Taupin and Reid, both of them unlikely and, in the case of Reid, a bomb waiting to explode. A working-class radio plugger from Paisley, Reid — who now lives a quiet life in Australia — powered Elton's career with a mix of cunning, bravado, genius and chicanery. "He was," Madden says with more than a hint of admiration, "an absolute monster."
Fresh off Bodyguard (what a relief it is to see him do more than just mutter "Ma'am"), the Scottish actor took to the new role with relish. "Some people said he was the nicest guy, and others went, 'He's the nastiest person I've ever met.' That gives you a huge amount of scope."
Taupin, Bell says, was in the thick of the action in the early part of Elton's career, with a ringside view of the carnage. "He's front and centre, at every gig, on the plane. Elton doesn't have the best self-esteem, he's in a room going, 'I don't know who I am.' So I think Bernie helped him navigate that."
"Warts and all," Elton commanded.
We'll have to wait and see if Fletcher has granted that wish. It's not as if there's a shortage of material. Back to Madden for a choice example of life when the drink and the drugs have driven you insane. "Elton was staying at, I think, the Four Seasons in LA, and really kicking off, complaining about the noise. The manager goes, 'I'm sorry, sir, but it's the wind.' And Elton says, 'Well, f****** do something about it."' That's a film right there. Over to Fletcher and co. Look, it's got to better than BoRhap.
Rocketman is out in New Zealand on May 25.
Written by: Dan Cairns
© The Times of London