Rocketman blasts off! Drink, drugs, anguish over his sexuality – Elton John has faced countless demons. And Taron Egerton laid them all bare to portray him in a new movie
- Actor Taron Egerton plays Elton John in Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher
- Rocketman looks at star from his childhood, through the wild years, up to 1990
- Elton was producer on film that shows him at ‘worst and best’ and offered advice
- Costume designer used more than 100,000 crystals for decoration on the outfits
- Taron said: ‘Playing Elton has been probably the greatest honour of my life so far’
The first day on the set of Rocketman, and to say that Taron Egerton had stage fright would be to put it mildly.
‘I was sure the whole thing was going to be a train wreck,’ confesses the Kingsman actor, who is portraying Elton John in the lavish new movie based on the early life of the rock legend.
‘I thought, “I really can’t do this. I can’t be Elton John, it’s too much responsibility.”
‘It’s a very daunting thing to play someone like Elton because everyone feels a sense of ownership over him as he’s so a much part of all our lives – I don’t know anyone who doesn’t at least know one Elton John song – and this job seemed one of those where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Actor Taron Egerton, pictured in the film, plays Elton John in new movie Rocketman, which is directed by Dexter Fletcher and about the singer’s life
Taron, pictured as Elton John, says the role was ‘very daunting’ and he worried that he would be so ‘bad’ the movie would ‘collapse’
‘It was the first day of shooting in years that I’d been as nervous as that. But I really thought I was going to be so bad the whole movie was going to collapse in on itself.’
To be fair, it would have been strange if Taron had not been at least a little intimidated by taking on the role of the iconic singer.
Sir Elton Hercules John CBE, jet setter and international superstar, was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in unglamorous Pinner, Middlesex, a shy and pudgy child whose one outstanding characteristic was an extraordinary talent to play, and later to compose, music.
Fame came to Elton when he was in his twenties, with hit songs like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Bennie And The Jets and Candle In The Wind, shooting him to a position in pop iconography from which he has never fallen.
But along with the fame came an extravagant, drug-fuelled lifestyle, aggravated by what was, for years, an increasingly desperate attempt to hide his homosexuality from a public who, until very recently, would have regarded it as unacceptable.
Sir Elton, pictured performing at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in 1975, was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in Middlesex. The film looks at the star from his childhood up to 1990
Elton helped with the film and shared dinner with Taron, pictured together in February, when the Kingsman actor went to the singer’s house in Old Windsor
Rocketman looks at Elton from his childhood, through the wild years, up to 1990, when, at the age of 43, he finally entered the drug rehabilitation unit that helped him rid himself of his demons and embark on the life of sobriety and self-acceptance that would lead him to where he is today – a happy, healthy 72-year-old, contentedly married to film-maker David Furnish and father of their two young sons, Zachary, eight, and six-year-old Elijah.
Given the subject matter, the story cannot be anything but colourful.
But as director Dexter Fletcher – who helped direct the Queen movie Bohemian Rhapsody – points out, Rocketman is very far from your conventional biopic.
‘The research about Elton is all out there: if you’re looking for just the facts, you can go and Google them.
‘But what we’re trying to do here is look at the emotional life of the man – what he went through, and what led him to certain points in his life and why.
‘It’s a very human, raw story, that could be about anyone in lots of ways – it just happens to be about Elton John, who is one of the most exciting and interesting rock musicians of a generation. But that’s just a bonus.’
The style of the movie – billed, tongue in cheek, as ‘A True Fantasy’ – is unique.
Beginning and ending with Elton’s long struggle with drugs, the film shows his life partly as a straight story and partly as scenes from a classic film musical – complete with songs, music, and extravagant dance sequences.
The film shows his life partly as a straight story and partly as scenes from a classic film musical. Pictured: Taron as Elton John
Rocketman doesn’t gloss over the darker side of Elton’s life and shows his struggle with drugs. Pictured are Taron, left, as Elton John and Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin, right, in a scene
‘It’s not like Bohemian Rhapsody, which was just a straight biopic,’ says Dexter.
‘But it’s not like Mamma Mia! either, which took ABBA’s songs and created a story that was complete fiction.
‘I suppose we’re sitting somewhere in the middle of that, in that we do use Elton’s songs and make them musical numbers to help tell the story, but we’re also using Elton’s real life story as our story.
‘Bernie Taupin, Elton’s lyricist, is a great songwriter and when you read his lyrics you find a story within them that opens up the songs in a completely exhilarating new way.’
Fantastical or not, the film does not gloss over the darker side of Elton’s life.
‘I would have an epileptic seizure and turn blue and people would find me on the floor and put me to bed, and then 40 minutes later I would be snorting another line,’ Elton himself once remembered of the depths of his drug-taking days.
Scenes like this, and more, are shown unflinchingly during the film.
‘It is a completely uncensored story,’ says Taron Egerton.
During filming, Elton would visit the sets and look at the footage. Pictured: Taron as the singer
The film shows Elton John, pictured is Taron acting, at his ‘worst and best.’ It also stars Richard Madden, pictured behind Taron, as John Reid
‘Elton is notoriously tempestuous and I was never interested in doing a sanitised, Disneyfied version of him.
‘I haven’t pulled any punches and I show him at his worst as well as at his best.’
According to Dexter, the film could never have happened without the approval – and input – of Elton himself, who originally worked with screenwriter Lee Hall to create the script and who also, along with David Furnish, acted as one of the producers.
‘Elton’s very generous,’ Dexter says, ‘a very clever man, and a great nurturer of talent.
‘He was what I’d call a great producer because when we were making this, he mostly let us do what we were brought in to do – although when we wanted his guidance we could go to him.
‘During the filming, he came to visit the sets, he looked at the footage, and sometimes he’d say things like, “Certain things are like this, certain things are not like that.” He was very generous that way without being interfering.’
Taron, who first met Elton when the singer did a cameo as himself on Kingsman: The Golden Circle, agrees.
Taron, pictured, describes his latest role as ‘probably the greatest honour of my life so far’
Elton, pictured, is known for his unusual costumes such as this Minnie Mouse one that he wore during a performance at Forum in Los Angeles. He later met Sting backstage, whilst still wearing it
‘Elton has been amazing. When I first met him I was so intimidated and scared by him; but I soon found that he also has this phenomenal childlike quality, this enthusiasm and joy for everything.
‘He remembers everything, too! I remember the first time I had dinner with him for this movie, we were talking about a band from the late 60s, and not only did he remember all about them but by the time I’d got home he’d sent me a vinyl record for me to listen to.’
Taron says that meal, the first time the two men had been alone together, is one he will never forget.
‘I went to his house, Woodside in Old Windsor, and we had dinner and just sat and talked.
‘It was a two-way sharing process because you don’t just go and talk to someone about their life and expect them to divulge all their deep dark secrets without divulging a few of your own.
Elton, pictured performing in New York in the 1980s, once admitted the outrageous costumes came about as a way for him to cover up his natural insecurity
‘But he was quite phenomenally open with me. I think it’s part of having been through the recovery process and being used to sharing, but he was absolutely honest with me – sometimes to a quite shocking degree.
‘There are details of the conversation we had that I’ll never reveal because I feel it would be remiss and slightly sacrilegious of me to share,’ he adds.
‘But I will say that we all tend to think of Elton as someone who has somehow crystallised in their most complete form because they’ve almost gone beyond being a person and have become just an idea or an icon, and it was interesting for me to get to know him as someone more vulnerable, who’s still growing to a degree, actually.
‘I remember one of the things he said to me that night was, “My dad’s been dead for 20 years and I’m still trying to impress him.” That was huge.’
An icon of outrageousness
The costumes are almost another character in the film – Elton’s famously extravagant stage outfits ran the gamut from the exotic to the ridiculous and came to define his stage presence almost as much as his piano playing.
Elton himself once admitted to me that the costumes originally came about as a way for him to cover up his natural insecurity.
‘As a boy, I was really, really shy,’ he confessed.
‘So, when I went out on to a stage, I tried to counter it as best I could with clothes.
‘I’d grown up watching English vaudeville acts, where everyone dressed outrageously.
‘So, when it was my time to put on a show, I instinctively went as far out there as I could.
Costume designers for Rocketman took inspiration from Elton’s outfits during his career. Pictured is Taron in one of the creations
‘Some of my costumes were hilarious. I wasn’t thinking about creating an image – just doing what came naturally.’
He added that the dressing up was fun in the beginning, but gradually became more of a burden.
‘After about five years, it got jaded. I’d begun to be successful in America, and a lot of people were watching me.
‘My costumes got further and further out there, and it changed from, “What do I want to wear this time?” to, “What costume can I wear next year to top the one I’m wearing right now?”
‘I remember one year I was playing at the Forum in Los Angeles and Sting came backstage.
‘I’d never met him before and I was a huge fan of his.
‘We were introduced, and I was dressed as Minnie Mouse, complete with a tail going up into the air! He reminds me of that to this day.’
Costume designer Julian Day – who has previously worked on such films as Bohemian Rhapsody and Pride And Prejudice And Zombies – says that, while he fully embraced the outrageousness of Elton’s on-stage style, he baulked at trying to make exact replicas of most of the costumes.
While making the film, Taron pictured as Elton, wore 40 pairs of shoes and 50 pairs of sunglasses
‘I was very kindly invited to go and see Elton’s archive of his stage costumes.
‘I went and had a look and thought, “Well, why do I want to re-create the exact costumes piece by piece? We’re creating our own world here.”
‘So we decided to create our own costumes inspired by his.
‘Bob Mackie is one of his designers, so I looked at his clothes and thought, “Where does he get his inspiration from?”
‘And I came up with Venetian carnival costumes or early circus costumes and worked it out from there.’
The pieces he’s created include a devil suit, a bird suit (‘We had to have multiple copies of that one, particularly for the scenes where he needed a soft pair of wings to get into cabs’) and a Queen Elizabeth I costume (‘That was to play Australia, we liked the idea of a British monarch playing there’).
Along the way, there were 40 pairs of shoes, 50 pairs of sunglasses, and more than 100,000 crystals used for decoration.
And yes, adds Julian, the great man had approval over all of it.
‘He came to the set to visit and we did a show and tell, and he looked at the designs and OK’d them all.’
He even did a bit of shopping.
‘There’s a pair of high-heeled multicoloured boots with wings.
‘We got a message to say he actually wanted a pair for himself. That was a great endorsement.’
To ensure maximum lift-off at the box office, Rocketman boasts a star-studded supporting cast.
Richard Madden (of BBC1’s Bodyguard) plays Elton’s manager and lover John Reid (who was also the manager of Queen in the 70s).
Plus there’s Jamie Bell as Elton’s long-term songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, Jurassic World star Bryce Dallas Howard as his mother Sheila, and West End performer Celinde Schoenmaker as his wife Renate, alongside Tate Donovan, Gemma Jones and Harriet Walter.
Back in 2013, when the movie was first talked about, Tom Hardy was set to play Elton, but as the years slipped past, the actor, who’s now 41, was deemed too old to play the younger version of the star.
That was when producer Matthew Vaughn remembered a young actor who, as well as starring in his earlier film Eddie The Eagle – which was also directed by Dexter Fletcher – had teamed up with his co-star Hugh Jackman to contribute a song, Thrill Me, that was played over the end credits.
‘I love to sing – I do it all the time,’ says Taron, who does all his own singing in Rocketman.
‘The first time Matthew heard me sing was on Eddie The Eagle, which was when the cogs in his brain started working.
‘Then when Tom Hardy left this film, he asked me if I’d be interested in doing it, and then it became a conversation with Dexter, and now here we all are working together again.
‘Singing Elton’s stuff has been a fantastic experience and I’ve found my voice has really grown through it.
‘I can’t play being a genius because I don’t have his songwriting ability; but what I can do is create a performance that is me – because you can only ever be you – and try and create something that captures the spirit of Elton.
‘Playing him has been probably the greatest honour of my life so far.’
And the thought of so many Elton fans seeing him in Rocketman gives him an absolute blast.
Rocketman will be in cinemas from 24 May.
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