It was at Rami Malek’s behest that Dexter Fletcher stepped in to finish Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” after Bryan Singer was fired, even though it meant he’d likely receive no official credit. He didn’t get DGA credit (although he certainly got the eternal gratitude of Oscar-winner Malek, producer Graham King, and 20th Century Fox), but it was never an act of altruism: It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help him prep his next film, Elton John musical “Rocketman.”
With three British indie films under his belt, the 53-year-old director did what had to be done to shepherd “Bohemian Rhapsody” to release. “There wasn’t enough time to see the movie before I agreed to it,” he said. Because he was originally going to direct it before it went to Singer, “I knew what it was. The film is its own film. I wanted to do a good job and bring it home. A lot of people were working hard and needed someone to get it over the line. I did my best work. I drove it and propelled it, but was not emotionally attached to it.”
Fletcher is far more invested in his film musical “Rocketman,” which only finished its sound mix a week before its May 16 debut as an Official Selection at Cannes. (Paramount releases it May 31.) Although a Pasadena test screening in March yielded stellar results, nobody has seen the finished two-hour film. “It’s so close to the wire,” he said. “You never finish — you want to have more time.”
While “Rocketman” plays out of competition, the film will compete for the Queer Palm, an independently sponsored prize for selected LGBTQ films. There has been much speculation on exactly how frank the film’s gay sex will be. “Paramount greenlit an R-rated script,” Fletcher said. “Elton’s story was no-holds-barred; there was never any doubt about that. There are different levels of an R. You don’t want to make a film that freezes out a wider audience.
“At the same time, it was clear from the outset that the film had to show the loves Elton had,” he said. “Those loves are always going to be slightly challenging and extreme. We were not under any illusions. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was the PG version of that story. R-rated was always part of our aim, our vision [for “Rocketman”]” he said. “I was never unduly pressured by the producers or the studio. There’s quite a lot of R content. I had to say, ‘This is what’s important’ in the course of it, no more than the norm.”
In one sex scene between John (Taron Egerton) and his manager-lover (Richard Madden), the lovers are nude, but Fletcher trimmed down the man-on-man motion. “There’s a longer version, of course,” he said. “Some things find their own timing naturally. The director’s cut was two hours and 38 minutes long. I can’t put out films that are two and a half hours long! That’s crazy. The love scene is something that ran long and would have to be edited back. I did not compromise my vision for anyone. I cut some things for length, that’s it.”
All the key pieces were in place before Fletcher joined: Elton John and his partner David Furnish were producers, Lee Hall’s script spent more than five years in development, and Egerton was cast. The musical “is authorized in every way,” Fletcher said. “It comes from them. I did a director’s pass on it, told the story the way I thought it should be told, but I didn’t shoot anything without them looking at it first. They said, ‘Yes, this is the movie you should make.'”
How did Fletcher win them over? For one thing, he and John shared the drug abuse-to-rehab journey; Fletcher once lived in his car. “As a director, my strengths are the human connection and relationships,” he said. “I am intrigued by what makes us who we are. I spoke about who Elton was and the story. It’s about a survivor, someone who seemingly on the outside has everything but who is going through big emotional turmoil, who needs to navigate and survive that. That’s the human condition and journey that people can understand. We all have problems that manifest in different ways. How we navigate makes us who we are.”
The film is told from John’s point of view: He’s a survivor despite his success. “Look at Marilyn Monroe,” Fletcher said. “Many great artists know their personal lives are opposite to their outward reflection. I wanted to explore inside Elton, from his perspective. Elton is our storyteller. He goes to rehab. He’s someone combatting their demons, who wants to get better, has a lot of issues to get to. We can all relate to it because it’s not a rockstar biopic, not a third-person account.”
Fletcher believed Egerton was a skilled actor capable of more range and depth that “had not been tapped into,” he said. “It was a role Taron was born to play. He could play the incredible drive of Elton, be very focused and dedicated in his craft, and have innate vulnerability, and make him someone single-minded, but still appealing and real.”
Egerton was also a gifted singer. “He had this instrument in his voice that I wanted to explore and challenge,” said Fletcher, who had to deliver 20 performances in a 60-day shoot.
While there’s many similarities between “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman,” Freddie Mercury’s story is a biopic with music while John’s is a biographical musical. “You can do a big biopic about Amelia Earhart with no singing, but you need technically to have someone filming an airplane,” Fletcher said. “A musical has to have singing in it. Why go to buy a ticket if the lead actor doesn’t sing lead? Singing roles in a musical is a minimum requirement.”
Rami Malek lip-synced Mercury’s recordings, although they were remixed and made to sound live. On “Rocketman,” some songs were pre-recorded so Egerton could sing along, while others were recorded live. “Taron created a musical role that he must sing,” said Fletcher. “So there’s live performances as Taron’s singing as we record on set.”
Borrowing a narrative strategy from his 2013 film “Sunshine on Leith,” a romance set in Edinburgh that used the music of Scottish duo The Proclaimers, Fletcher staged all the songs in “Rocketman” as musical numbers. “It’s a performance used as a storytelling device,” he said.
“I Want Love” is sung around a dining room table when John is 14 years old. The crucial musical sequence is “Rocket Man,” which combines Egerton’s performance with a simultaneous bravura fantasy that includes balletical underwater elements. “It’s a pivotal moment in the story of Elton,” said Fletcher, “the depth of his isolation and loneliness at the same time he’s at Dodger Stadium.” For “Saturday Night’s Alright,” Fletcher mounted an ambitious sequence around the teenage John coming into work, while “Crocodile Rock” brings John to an early performance at L.A.’s Troubador Club.
Thursday night at Cannes, audiences and critics at the Grand Theatre Lumiere will see for themselves, with Elton John on hand, if we are ready for another celebration of a music icon.