Elton John biopic ‘Rocketman’ is finally ready for lift-off

We meet the filmmakers, stars and crew on the set of the epic Elton John ‘musical fantasy’ that wowed at Cannes and will probably do the same at Dubai Opera

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.
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Neither of them is quite sure when the crying started, but when it did, there was no stopping the tears. As Elton John and the man playing him, Taron Egerton, sat and watched the credits roll from their middle-row seats of Le Palais des Festival, the most prestigious cinema screen in the whole of the Cannes Film Festival, the rest of the audience rose to their feet for a standing ovation that would last a full four minutes.

For John and Egerton, the emotion simply got the better of them. After more than a decade of false starts and in-and-out A-list faces, the movie of John's turbulent life was now ready to be launched across the world. Rocketman was finally taking flight. And people were loving the view.

A project that took over a decade to finish

The seeds of the project were sown around 11 years ago, rather appropriately in a backstage boudoir in Las Vegas that was decked out in flowers and finery. John was in town with his Rocketman producer, David Furnish, for his Red Piano show that the pair had just opened there to rave reviews. That show was a phantasmagorical deep dive into the musical legend's rich visual history, with a riot of outrageous costumes and glittery platform heels brought to life on the stage.

“And that triggered something inside Elton,” remembers Furnish. “He said to me, ‘It would be great to do a film about my life that captures that same sort of spirit.’ He didn’t want to do a straightforward biopic – he’s never been a fan of them. As he said, ‘My life has been so larger than life that to tell it in a straightforward way wouldn’t do it justice.’”

I first saw the blossoming of that manifesto when I visited the set of Rocketman late last year in London, to witness the execution of just one of its many extraordinary musical set-pieces. The movie traces John's life from the young Reginald Dwight (his original name), living in a largely loveless family home, to the global superstar who has now sold in excess of 300 million records. The sequence I was there to see, set to his classic track Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting, was engineered to showcase the start of that transformation, in a single tracking shot so audacious it would give Martin Scorsese the heebie-jeebies.

Creating an 'epic musical fantasy' 

"It is comfortably the biggest thing I've ever done," said the film's director, Dexter Fletcher, as he prepared to wrangle no less than 300 extras, 50 dancers, four cameras, three cranes, 10 dodgems and one Ferris wheel for the massive song and dance number set – in case you hadn't guessed – in a British fairground in the '60s.

It is comfortably the biggest thing I've ever done.

Watching this incredible moment unfurl brought to vivid life the ambition of this production. Yes, Fletcher was the director who was called in at the last minute by 20th Century Fox to finish Bohemian Rhapsody, when they fired its original director, Bryan Singer. And, yes, that traditional biopic of another uniquely British music legend was an almighty success, hoovering up just shy of $900 million (Dh3.3 billion) at the box office and winning its star, Rami Malek, the Best Actor Oscar for his toothy portrayal of Freddie Mercury. Rocketman, though, has far loftier ambitions than that. As Fletcher himself observes, ­"Bohemian Rhapsody was a film with music in it. This is a musical."

He's not lying. Soundtracked by 23 of John's most beloved songs, Rocketman is, as Fletcher has it, "an epic musical fantasy, emphasis on the fantastical". In it, the grand traditions of the MGM classics, like Singin' in the Rain (one of Fletcher's favourite movies) meet the cutting edge of modern movie-making. The Saturday Night sequence we watch from the sidelines – that they nail in an incredibly economic 19 takes – time-jumps from Elton as a young boy (played by Kit Connor) into the teenage version, played by Egerton.

FILE PHOTO: 72nd Cannes Film Festival - Screening of the film "Rocketman" out of competition - Red Carpet Arrivals - Cannes, France, May 16, 2019. Elton John poses with Taron Egerton. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo

"And that jump means we can show all the different cultures in London at the time that Elton was influenced by," says choreographer Adam Murray, who spent 12 weeks planning this piece. "Each group of dancers 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."

And if all that sounds complicated then consider this: the sequence set to Honky Cat later in the movie has Egerton and Richard Madden (playing his manager, John Reid) having a dance-off on top of a giant spinning record; the one to Crocodile Rock sees the entire crowd of legendary LA venue The Troubadour levitate in unison; and the one to Rocket Man is actually performed underwater, Egerton's John sinking to the bottom of his swimming pool in a nadir of depression, excess and isolation.

The perfect leading man

Fortunately for Egerton, who performs all the tracks in Rocketman himself, John has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. As a boy, Egerton would sing along with his parents to his songs on the car radio. At aged 18, he performed Your Song as his audition piece for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Nine years later, in the animated movie Sing, he banged out I'm Still Standing as a cartoon gorilla – and the producers of Rocketman knew they'd found their man for the gig.

My life has been pretty crazy. The lows were very low, the highs were very high. Unfortunately, there wasn't much balance in between. And what these guys [the filmmakers and stars] have done with my story is astonishing.

“And now,” Egerton tells us as he pops by for a breathless chat, exhausted by his on-set exertions, “I’m proud to say that, through this, Elton John has become a friend. He gave me the space to do this, didn’t give me any advice on how to play him, just supported me. It’s hard to put into words what this whole thing has meant to me.”

The feeling, it's fair to say, is mutual. For John himself, this eventual realisation of his life story, that came close to happening before with Tom Hardy in the lead, simply couldn't have been played this way by anyone else. Hardy had the acting chops, but not the vocals. In Egerton, Rocketman found its perfect package of both; the pilot to steer it into the creative stratosphere.

"Taron is incredible, incredible, in this," John told those cheering crowds in Cannes. "My life has been pretty crazy. The lows were very low, the highs were very high. Unfortunately, there wasn't much balance in between. And what these guys [the filmmakers and stars] have done with my story is astonishing." The star, 72, paused, drinking in the atmosphere and reflecting on the movie about himself that he had just seen. "It's brutally honest and doesn't pull any punches," he said. "But I can't wait for audiences to see it and, hopefully, love it as much as I do."

Rocketman will have its UAE premiere at Dubai Opera on June 11, and is in cinemas across the country from June 13