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Hillary Atkin

Elton John Reveals the Backstory Behind the Biopic ‘Rocketman’

Oct 17, 2019

First the movie. Now the book. Sir Elton John is in revelatory mode, or as he puts it: Ask me anything.

That’s what the 72-year-old mega music star and philanthropist told Dexter Fletcher, the director of “Rocketman,” which chronicles his unhappy childhood, his rise to fame and his struggles with the excesses that come with superstardom. He said the same thing to actor Taron Egerton, who portrays him in the feature film, which opened May 31.

With film awards season campaigning moving into full swing, John made a rare non-musical appearance after a screening of “Rocketman” Tuesday night at Paramount’s main theater on its studio lot in Los Angeles.

Dressed in a bright red jacket, black track pants and red-tinted glasses, the music man received a standing ovation from the packed house as he walked out on stage with Egerton, Fletcher, his lyricist Bernie Taupin, Jamie Bell, who plays Taupin in the film, and Bryce Dallas Howard, who portrays his mother.

It was also the eve of the release of his autobiography, titled simply “Me,” and John exhorted the audience several times to buy the book.

(It’s tops on our reading list but here’s what The Guardian UK said about it: “A memoir that is racy, pacy and crammed with scurrilous anecdotes — what more could you ask from the rocket man?”)

Responding to questions from moderator Marc Malkin, John said it was a long yellow brick road to get the picture made — 12 years — and that Paramount was the only studio that would touch it because he wanted it to be R-rated, and not a typical biopic.

“We went through a few different directors but ended up with the right people,” John said. “Tom Hardy was going to play me, but he got too old. I wanted to make a film that was not PG but told the truth about my sexuality. It had to have some semblance of madness because that’s what a drug addict’s life is, kind of Dali-esque. I wanted to share my vision and we got exactly the right people.”

Dexter, who had stepped in to helm “Bohemian Rhapsody” last year after Bryan Singer was forced out of the film about Queen’s Freddie Mercury, was apparently the right man for the job.

“Elton quickly opened up and was very clear that there was nowhere we couldn’t shine a light on,” he said. “He empowered me. He wanted a unique version of his life, and that’s what excited me. It was about this unique challenge not to hide anything and an approach that jumped around in its timeline. You see him at his worst — and you love him at his best.”

“Dexter was brilliant in handling the cast. It was a happy set,” John said. “People pulled together and made the best film possible.”

For Egerton, a 29-year-old who is best known for the “Kingsman” films, the challenge was not only to portray John during the 1970s but to sing his and Taupin’s iconic songs including “Tiny Dancer,” “Honky Cat,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “I Want Love,” “Border Song,” “Take Me to the Pilot,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “ I’m Still Standing” and “Your Song.”

“It just felt like a daunting yet exciting opportunity,” said the actor, who is now good friends with John and his husband, David Furnish. “The candor with which it is told doesn’t sanitize anything and that was exciting. And also to tell the story through song and dance in a technicolor way. The support I had from everyone made it feel like a family in every way.”

With Taupin sitting right beside him, Bell, who rose to stardom as a teenager in 2000’s “Billy Elliot,” talked about the difficulties of portraying a real person who is still alive.

“I tried to get to the heart of him,” Bell said. “Bernie had written a book which I read and I sat with him and there were also fan magazines that I used for research. The opportunity I’d been given was to portray one of two men who were in love with each other, platonically — a real, pure love based on friendship. That relationship, that bond and alchemy, was something I was always trying to get to.”

Taupin reflected that when he and John started out together in 1967 in England they had a lot of dreams, but one of them wasn’t about who would play them in a movie.

“The thing about this kind of portrayal is that it’s extraordinarily difficult. People don’t know me or my mannerisms — but Jamie conveyed our relationship beyond my wildest dreams,” Taupin said.

For Howard’s portrayal of Sheila Dwight, she said she did not speak to John about his mom, who died in 2017. Viewers of the film see that when he was a child — John was born Reginald Dwight before he changed his name — and showed musical talent early on, his grandmother and his mother were very supportive, while his father was coldly indifferent. Yet as he reached adulthood, the relationship with his mother became one marked by hurt and pain.

“I had a lot of conversations about her with a psychologist, which led to a pivotal realization — she wasn’t well. I was relieved to have that clarity. I understand that and can play that. I knew it was going to be an unflattering portrait,” Howard said.

John talked about his reaction upon seeing the film at the Cannes Film Festival this past May.

“The songs were in the wrong order, which I loved,” he said. “When it got to the scene of ‘I Want Love,’ with the whole family, my mother, my father, myself, my grandmother, who was just wanting everyone to be happy — when they started singing that song, I broke down. I completely lost it. They were four very unhappy people. The nice thing about my mom and my dad is that after they broke up, they met people and found complete happiness, which I loved, and stayed together forever.”

He said other scenes that deeply affected him included seeing his father being affectionate with his new set of kids — two boys — and one in which blood drips out of his nose from so much cocaine use.

But the most touching, he said, was the scene where Taupin visits him in rehab. “Our relationship survived everything — that was the story. Fifty-three years of pure, utter love for each other.”

He expressed more fond praise for Egerton. “I felt like I was looking at me. He sang so beautifully. The facial mannerisms — everything was extraordinary. I wouldn’t change a thing, not one frame.” At that point, Egerton reached over and hugged John, and grabbed his hand.

Asked whether there would be a sequel that covers his life after rehab, John said absolutely not.

“Buy the book,” he said.

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