It was over 12 years ago that Elton John began developing “Rocketman,” a film about his life, and he had strict requirements: It needed to be R-rated, so as to not soften the music superstar’s battle with drug addiction or gloss over his sexuality, and required “a bit of strangeness to it,” John said during a post-screening Q&A for guild members at the Paramount lot Tuesday.
There were plenty of false starts. “Tom Hardy was going to play me,” John said. “Then by the time things move on, he got too old — and he can’t sing!” Finally, the right team was assembled, including Taron Egerton in the leading role, director Dexter Fletcher at the helm, and a willing distributor in Paramount. (“No studio other than Paramount would touch it with a barge pole,” he said.)
John couldn’t be happier with the result.
“When I saw Taron, I was not looking at him — I was looking at me. And when I was hearing the voice, I was hearing me, but it wasn’t me,” he said. “Everything about it was extraordinary.”
One thing John loves is using the songs to tell the movie’s emotional story, rather than appearing in chronological order of their recording. The film opens with John in rehab recounting his childhood through “The Bitch Is Back” — both Egerton’s John and a younger version played by Matthew Illesley sing the 1974 song. It also features surreal sequences such as John and his audience levitating during his debut performance at the Troubadour.
The film’s frank depiction of drug use and sex helped earn it an R-rating. In fact, it’s reportedly the first movie from a major studio’s non-specialty label to feature a sex scene between two men, Egerton’s John and music manager John Reid (Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones”).
Though John executive produced through his Rocket Films, he stayed away from the set, leaving the day-to-day to his husband David Furnish and other producers.
When he first saw a rough cut, the scene that used his 2001 song “I Want Love” particularly affected him.
“The whole family was in such chaos — my father, my mom, myself, and my grandmother, who was just wanting everyone to be happy or miserable,” he said. “And that song, they started singing that and I broke down. I completely lost it.”
He didn’t see the final version until its Cannes premiere in May. There, one scene that touched him most was when John’s longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) visits him in rehab.
“I broke down again because it just showed … the incredible love — Bernie was the glue that held the film together. Our relationship, it survived everything, survived all the bad behavior and the success,” he said. “I just lost it in the Cannes Film Festival. How embarrassing is that?”