ROCKETMAN – an epic musical odyssey

Release: Paramount Pictures


This film blurs the lines of fantasy and reality, fuses the worlds of music, fame and fashion, and stamps a glittery platform heel down on the cinematic rulebook. ROCKETMAN takes audiences on an uncensored journey through the life of an icon, with Elton’s most beloved songs – reimagined and updated in breakthrough musical and dramatic performances by the young cast – propelling and shaping the story. “The idea,” says its director, Dexter Fletcher, “was to create something that would genuinely explode off the screen, a riotous joy-ride of imagination, celebration and drama.”

In ROCKETMAN, Elton John is played by Taron Egerton, delivering an astonishing performance that has seen him record new versions of some of John’s most famous songs. As the film follows Elton from his English hometown of Pinner and along the yellow brick road of fame, addiction and heartbreak, we will also meet the mother he had a troubled relationship with (Bryce Dallas Howard), his manager and onetime lover, John Reid (Richard Madden), and his legendary lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), the best friend and creative partner of over 50 years without whom John might not have survived. As Elton, who gave the cast and crew of ROCKETMAN free reign to tell his story, says: “My life has been pretty crazy. The lows were very low, the highs were very high. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much balance in between.”



For producer David Furnish, he knew from the beginning that Elton John was interested in telling a fantasy version of his life, something that was larger than life, not as it happened exactly, but as the fantastical version of what might have taken place. “And that was our starting point for the film that we wanted to make.”The first Elton John track that features in ROCKETMAN isn’t just thematically daring but sets the scene for how music will be employed in telling the story of how young Reggie became a global icon. “’The Bitch is Back’ is really where we sign the contract with the audience and they get to understand how the music is going to be applied throughout the film,” says Furnish.


“It’s a bold opening for a film, a stand-up musical showpiece kind of number, but it's also very important because it's where we introduce the concept of our storytelling – that we aren't just a live performance music movie, but a film where reality and fantasy are very much blurred worlds that cross over at different times. In ROCKETMAN, the music is often the conduit to go in and out of those worlds, and to give people a chance to express and reveal things about themselves through a song.”

‘The Bitch is Back’

The song transports us back to the 1950s, specifically the home of a seven-year-old Reginald Dwight, where we find a family living a largely loveless existence (“every member of the house is searching for love in a different way,” observes Furnish). The setting is sweet, “almost Stepford Wives-y,” says Fletcher, a very traditional English setting in the ‘50s – all milkmen and postmen and ice cream vans. “But everything is a bit too perfect,” adds Fletcher. “I wanted all the dancers to be doll-faced and have locked, rictus grins on their faces. The neighbors are all very cheery and everyone’s waving to Reggie, and then he sings about being ‘a bitch’ and he’s like this kind of venal, dangerous character. Then you have older Elton in his devilish costume in the middle of that, trying to stop it, close it down.

As an opening salvo, ‘The Bitch is Back’ functions as the perfect introduction to the world of ROCKETMAN, its daring mix of the authentic and the surreal. “That’s the idea,” says Fletcher. “You know, this isn’t traditional. We are in a musical, but it’s weird and off-kilter, because that’s where Elton is at this point (in the movie). He’s out of whack. Placing this opening in his home in Pinner, where he’s from, where his genesis is, is crucial. Later in his life, Elton got to the point where he always felt he was bad, but the truth is, he wasn’t. He was once just a wonderful, innocent child, like we all were. That’s what he needs to reconnect with.”

‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’

One of ROCKETMAN’s most audacious set-pieces takes place, somewhat appropriately, to one of Elton John’s most outrageously thumping tunes. The sequence starts with a 10-year-old Reggie playing piano in a London pub, before following him out the door, up an alley and out into a bustling British funfair, where he morphs from his young incarnation (played by Kit Connor) into Taron Egerton’s tearaway teen.

It’s an astounding sequence, one single tracking shot following him through the fairground as he interacts with over 300 extras, 50 dancers, four cameras, three cranes, 10 dodgems and a Ferris wheel. This epic dance number took 12 weeks to choreograph and time-jumps the audience from the ‘50s to the ‘60s. “And that jump means we can also show all the different cultures and influences in London at the time,” says choreographer Adam Murray. “Each group (of dancers in the sequence) starts picking up dance moves from the other groups – the Mods are doing a bit of Bhangra and there are also Teddies, Rockers and Ska – this unity.”


Taron Egerton as Elton John in 'Rocketman'




This narrative device and choice of song, says Furnish, “is a brilliant metaphor for showing how Elton moved through a very difficult, claustrophobic, working-class upbringing, to become this unstoppable force propelling himself forward from childhood into early manhood. It's a wonderful, big celebratory set-piece.”

Fletcher looks back on the shooting of the sequence – comfortably his biggest to date – with pride. “‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ always makes people smile,” he says. “I hope people come out of that scene and say, ‘Well, that was great!’ There is so much storytelling crammed into it. Here, Elton is seeing the things that are the genesis of his musical influences. The sequence shows how Elton celebrates other people and their differences because that is part of who he is and what his ethos is. The world is now about celebrating diversity and difference, and that is who Elton is. As a musical number, it’s always moving, celebrating a raw, visceral youth. That’s why it’s one shot. I said to my director of photography, George Richmond, ‘Let’s make it connective, one shot. Let’s make it keep moving, keep it fluid and do it seamlessly.’ And George is the best man in the world for that job. That’s why it’s a key centerpiece because it is really about Elton stepping out into a wider world.”

‘Your Song’

This song will always be an essential feature on the soundtrack to Taron Egerton’s life. You could even say that it’s the song that changed it forever. Egerton chose the song as the one he would perform at his audition to get into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Twice. “The first time, I didn’t get in!” he laughs now. “But I knew it was a winner and it worked the next year. I chose it because it tells a story of a character. It’s addressed to someone and you can perform it as a speech. And it’s a truly lovely moment in ROCKETMAN, part of a narrative of how Elton and Bernie collaborated in such a unique way.”

For Bell, it’s not just one of the greatest songs ever written but perfect for the story they are telling. “It’s very visual and cinematic songwriting,” he says. “The way that song is depicted in the film is a beautiful, beautiful moment.”

As for one of the two men who wrote it, ‘Your Song’ still remains one of his most favourite to perform, nearly 50 years after he first did. “I’ve never got tired of singing it,” says John. “It’s the most beautiful, romantic song. It touches people. That’s why you write songs, to touch people. You want to write songs that please you, but if they please other people, and I think the lyric to ‘Your Song’ and the sentiment behind the song does, it will never die. It’s an extraordinary lyric from an 18-year-old poet (Bernie Taupin). And it’s complicated – I wrote it in E-flat, and I wrote it very, very quickly as you see in ROCKETMAN. That really is how it happened. The writing was a magical moment in our life.”

That scene in ROCKETMAN, as we witness the creation of one of the most enduring love songs of all time, is, according to its director, one of the most stunning moments in a movie packed with them. “What I set out to do was to use the songs in a new and exciting way,” says Fletcher. “The familiarity of the song allows us to enjoy that moment and what we’ve done with it is a spine-tingling cinematic moment.”

‘Crocodile Rock’

“One of the bits I'm most proud of in our film is Elton’s breakout performance at the Troubadour,” says Egerton of the moment that Elton John first burst onto the global music scene. “He was 23 years old and it was one of those performances, one of those amazing nights at the Troubadour, that really broke him into this a huge international artist.”


The production built a note-perfect recreation of the iconic music venue in Los Angeles, for a sequence that sees Egerton’s John go from terrified – hiding in the toilets backstage, refusing to come on – to triumphant. “‘Crocodile Rock’ is one of Elton's biggest audience participation numbers, so that seemed like an obvious choice for the sequence,” says Furnish. “It's so catchy, you pick it up so quickly, people sing along with it straight away. And in the movie, there is a light, airy quality to what Dexter has imagined with the Troubadour performance. Elton was always famous for projecting his legs up in the air off the back of the pianos, doing handstands on the piano keys. We decided to take that and use that as a metaphor for showing his rise to fame. During that number, with all the energy and all the kicking back, his legs rise up into the air and the audience rises up into the air with him. You get the sense that it's not just your average concert, it's a very, very special moment where the whole room kind of felt like things just went to another place in a big otherworldly kind of way. That song underpins all of that beautifully.”

Not that it necessarily felt like it at the time, of course. “People just went, ‘What?’” laughs John at the memory of that memorable night. “I was, you know, jumping in the air and all that, and they weren’t ready for that. But it was about being in the right place at the right time. You know, when Dick James (the British record producer) said to me, ‘I want you to go to the Troubadour,’ I said to him, ‘I so want to go to America but I don’t think the time is right.’ He told me I had to go. It shows you; you know nothing. I thought, ‘Well, I want to go to an American record store and buy some albums.’ So, I went. You never know what’s going happen!”

‘Tiny Dancer’

That unforgettable, life-changing night at The Troubadour became ever more significant for what happened right after it, with John and Taupin finding themselves invited straight afterwards to a party at music icon Mama Cass’ house. It was there that Elton first met John Reid.

“In the movie you really see the instant connection between these two men,” says Madden. “Their relationship would get much more complicated and go to some dark places, but it was important to us to show how intense that spark first was.”

And what better song to showcase that spark than ‘Tiny Dancer’, one of John’s most beloved songs? “Absolutely,” says Fletcher. “You know, when we started to make the movie, we obviously started to think about what songs we were going to feature in it. There are so many Elton John songs to choose from, and, to be clear, we chose the songs we have in the movie because they worked with the story that we wanted to tell. But, when you start writing that list, ‘Tiny Dancer’ is basically right at the top of it.”

‘Honky Cat’

Like the ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ sequence, ROCKETMAN’s ‘Honky Cat’ one is also deliberately staged with the look and feel of a classic MGM musical. And not just for the visual pizzazz of it, either. “This short sequence is illustrating the kind of burgeoning success and growing notoriety and wealth that is coming to Elton at that time,” explains Egerton. “The fun of the number is that Elton is really discovering his identity before the cost of excess kicks in. In it, me and Richard (Madden) have a little dance-off on top of a huge spinning record.”

It’s a lovely, brief but telling moment in the movie; one that feels both modern in its execution and classical in its make-up. “Singin’ in the Rain is one of my favorite films, where Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse go off into these inspired fantasies,” says Fletcher of the tone he’s striving for. “For me, the question is how we take that traditional thing and flip it on its head and make it all about opulence and self-indulgence and behavior that is deemed to be not particularly attractive – the spending of money.”

And, boy, was there money. At the time of the ‘Honky Cat’ sequence in ROCKETMAN, Elton John was commanding no less than 4 percent of all records sold, everywhere. “That is a a tremendous amount of money,” says Fletcher. “So, the song needed to celebrate and look at that, take it on board. Whether you agree with it or not, it is Elton’s reality at that point, and while it seems fantastical and opulent and almost rude, ‘Honky Cat’ just seemed to lean into that idea nicely. It shows the side of, ‘It must be wonderful to be rich and have a bath of champagne,’ but while it’s an exploration of that, it’s also about the other side of that. It’s the beginning of his detachment from reality.”



One of ROCKETMAN’s very first manifestos was always that as well as celebrating the life of Elton John, it would not shy away from the darkness that it has also seen. And this ‘Honky Cat’ sequence is a prime example of that, of John’s commitment to authenticity, even the ugly side of it. “That was always important to us,” acknowledges Furnish. “This song is used in the moment in our storytelling where Elton is becoming this big, big success, but where he kind of goes from there. It starts to show the influence that John Reid has on his life and the things he introduces Elton to. It shows how they come together as a couple and come together as a business and learn and grow so much. It's really where the excesses start to come into Elton's life, and he begins to really broaden as an individual. Which is a good thing but also, turns out to be a very, very challenging thing in his life. ‘Honky Cat’ is a very seductive moment in the film.”

‘Bennie and the Jets’

For ROCKETMAN’s music producer, the Giles Martin, ‘Bennie and the Jets’ is maybe the boldest of all the many musical interpretations that this production has brought to bear on Elton John’s classic back catalogue.

It’s a wild take for a wild time in the movie’s narrative. “It’s the bacchanalian reality, it’s the private jet going down to the NYC wonderland,” says Fletcher of the sequence. “It’s the high point or the low point in the story, depending on your viewpoint. In ROCKETMAN, there had to be a time where Elton completely loses himself, loses his way. Then he comes into rehab to try to find who he is again. I can’t do ‘warts and all’ if I don’t show the warts. And this is really what it looked like.

This was a question of, ‘How dark can we make it?’ I didn’t need to show Elton sleeping with loads of people in the film and all that stuff, but I needed people to understand what propelled his behavior. We have honest love scenes of Richard and Taron, and they’re beautifully shot, like any love scene should be. But ‘Bennie and the Jets’ is the polar opposite of that, where his life just becomes completely venal and lost. The film has a responsibility to explore that. And, if I don’t, then I can’t put him in rehab. He’s got nothing to rehabilitate from.”

The track, sung by Egerton, is set in a nightclub, and not just any club. “There was a period in the ‘70s where Studio 54 was the club to be at,” says Fletcher. “It was an incredible place for incredible people with an incredible creative output, but it was a particularly dark time. It was this strange time when AIDS was very prevalent. There was this undertone of fear. Elton’s personal life was getting completely lost in addiction. So, in the ‘Bennie and the Jets’ sequence, there is this kind of darkness and you see the seven layers of Hell as you descend down into the club. The film takes a responsible attitude to the drugs in that it goes, ‘Yeah, come to Studio 54. It’s amazing as you come down the stairs, but once you get to the bottom, it’s horrible – the people who are there are lost.’ So, visually, the sequence starts off and looks and feels amazing. It’s very inviting. But then it descends into a darkness that I feel is the responsible way to approach it, because I don’t want to glorify it. There is a human cost, an emotional cost and a personal cost.”

As costume designer Julian Day has it, “If ‘Honky Cat’ is the seed of excess then ‘Bennie and the Jets’ is the finished oak of things.” It’s sex and drugs, in other words, but the rock and roll has gone out the window. “This is when the rocket is really starting to sputter,” says Furnish. “‘Bennie and the Jets’ is where Elton is really on the decline. Everything is becoming too much. His addictions are spiraling out of control and dragging him down. The song is used as almost this desperate cry. It's very powerfully used.”

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’

As well as being a classic song and a pivotal part of the story in the movie, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ is also the perfect showcase of the brilliant intricacies that costume designer Julian Day brought to ROCKETMAN. The outfit he created to accompany the song is inspired, of course, by The Wizard of Oz, with the kind of level of detailing that will delight fans of the family classic.

“It’s one of my favorite outfits in the movie,” says Day. “I gave Taron a blue suit with ruby-red shoes on and ruby-red lapels, to represent Dorothy. The shirt is made of silver fabric, for the Tin Man. He’s got a straw hat, for the Scarecrow, and a big fake fur coat for the Lion. There’s even a little emerald belt buckle, and Taron wore a small emerald earring, to represent the Emerald City.”

But, while it’s Egerton’s outfit, it’s Bell’s song to sing. “I get to sing ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ at a point where Bernie and Elton have been apart for a time, and Bernie has come to check in on Elton,” says Bell. “Elton is just spinning, off the planet. He’s drinking a lot and has just turned mean. He’s lost himself and is so far removed from who he is. Even when he’s looking at Bernie, his steadfast friend, he can’t even see the forest for the trees anymore.”






The scene sees the pair meet in a fancy restaurant, for a dinner that will go disastrously. “There’s this beat where the music kicks in,” says Bell, “and the lyrics are, ‘When are you going to come down? When are you going to land?’ So, basically, Bernie is saying to Elton, ‘When are you going to get off this roller coaster? When is it going to stop? When are you going to face up to the fact that you have some issues and that you have to deal with them, before they kill you?’ Bernie storms out of the restaurant as he’s singing and it’s really the moment where we know – oh, wow – this relationship is coming to an end. And it’s sad. Bernie gets in a cab and drives away and there is a feeling of tragedy that the song allows. It’s a moment where Bernie thinks, ‘I’ve tried to save my friend, and I don’t think I can.’ The song expresses a failure for him in some ways.”

What is the Yellow Brick Road? What does it represent? Is it the entertainment industry as a whole, or Taupin and John’s careers within it? “It can mean different things to different people,” reasons Bell. “The storytelling moment here is that Elton and Bernie both wanted to do something important with their lives, to change their circumstances. We can all connect with that in some way. When you get the thing you want, it can be very complicated. And how you deal with it can be complicated. And then, what if you lose the one thing that kind of keeps you grounded? Then, all bets are off...”

‘Rocket Man’

Appropriately, given that it is ROCKETMAN’s title track, the moment that the song that drives the movie arrives is one for the ages. As Martin himself says of the achievement, “The song ‘Rocket Man’ starts in the bottom of a swimming pool and ends up in a stadium. I guess that’s a bold statement.”

“You don’t really think of ‘Rocket Man’ as being a stadium song. But we’ve kind of thrown the kitchen sink at it,” says Martin. “There’s a 50-piece choir and a 100-piece orchestra on it. It’s become this huge thing. And we haven’t done these things for the sake of doing these things. We’ve done them for the sake of it being fun, a good listen and good to watch. Ultimately, I don’t think we get points for bravery, I think we get points for entertainment.”

Fletcher marvels at the memory of making the moment. In the movie, it’s a sequence where Egerton’s John, depressed and having taken an overdose, plunges himself into a swimming pool at a party. Which is great to read on paper, but quite something else to execute in reality. “Put it this way,” says Fletcher. “I am extremely proud of Taron being able to perform a song on his back, at the bottom of a 15-meter water tank. It really is something to behold.”




For Furnish, ’Rocket Man’ is the ideal metaphor for a man at the peak of his powers, who has never felt more alone. “At that time in his life, Elton was the biggest star in the world,” says the producer. “His rocket was fully in ascension and he was orbiting through the universe, but he was also feeling increasingly isolated and incredibly lonely and starting to feel really detached from everyday life. Real love and real connection were becoming harder and hrder and more elusive for him. And this song, melodically and lyrically, captures that feeling so well. It fits because it's got all the anthemic qualities of that big moment in his life, but it also has the dramatic isolation that Elton can sometimes feel, despite all the success and everything that's happening around him. Basically, it’s the perfect mix of music and movie. I can’t wait for people to see it.”


Kulturexpress  ISSN 1862-1996


May 31, 2019