Musical biopics tend toward a certain formula. Our heroic underdog fights insecurity, contempt and other impediments, proves the naysayers wrong, finds success beyond measure, gets swallowed up in substances and indiscretions, and then reemerges stronger than ever — or dies trying.
“Rocketman,” the story of Elton John’s meteoric rise, crash and return to the firmament, took a wildly inventive approach to those familiar elements, turning songs and events from John’s life into surreal fantasy sequences. The impressionist approach was thrilling from the moment star Taron Egerton burst into view wearing enormous wings and devil horns and sat down in the middle of a 12-step meeting.
Egerton arrives at an interview slightly less dramatically, apologizing for being a few minutes late. “I was doing Barry’s Bootcamp. I’m turning into a walking cliché,” he jokes of the fitness program. The British actor, introduced to U.S. audiences as the charming Eggsy in the “Kingsman” movies, sang all of his songs for “Rocketman” and became close friends with John and husband David Furnish, both producers on the film, along the way.
It could have been ordained; he sang John’s “Your Song” when auditioning for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art as a teenager. He got in.
This film takes the usual biopic tropes and sends them dancing in the streets.
It’s something that I found particularly thrilling. The response that we took to the whole film is rather than mimicking, we wanted to emulate, and be authentic and creative, so the idea is that the spirit of the movie is informed by the passion of a fan.
Was it difficult knowing that Elton John was watching the dailies of you playing him?
That was always what excited me most about it. I know him, so I know that the only thing that’s unforgivable with Elton is being beige and bland. And also, I’m an actor; I have had incredible opportunities in my 20s, but they haven’t necessarily given me the opportunity to spread my wings, quite literally in this case, and show what I’m capable of. So it was quite a unique opportunity presented to me, and there was absolutely no way I was going to shave any of the edges off it.
Was there a moment when you were preparing for the role — a prop or costume maybe — that made you feel, ah, I’ve got it, I know how to portray this character.
I went to stay at Elton’s house, and he gave me his first-ever diamond earring. I remember when he gave me that, I kind of fell in love with him a little bit, and it made the experience of playing him hyper-personalized, if that’s a term I’m going to get away with. I felt very fortified and galvanized. By the time we started, I felt so full of passion and energy for the project that I was like a wind-up toy ready to go.
There were other moments too. Whenever I would talk to him about the project, he kept telling me about how shy he was as a young man, and it’s in the script, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. It was my folly to not see that that’s such a huge part of him, that “Elton John” is a Ziggy Stardust, it’s a mantle that he assumes, I think, so he can be that whirlwind on stage, that gregarious, bravado, peacocky guy. And once I realized that there’s an intense duality to who he is as a person, I found that very freeing, because it meant that I could be at one moment shy and inhibited, and the next moment this force of nature that sometimes manifests as virtuoso piano playing and incredible stage charisma, and other times manifests as someone who loses their temper in a very quick way.
During the shoot, were there any songs that carried particular resonance?
I always knew the date of “Your Song” on the schedule, and I could see it, like a boat on the horizon, coming for me. It was their first hit. When we were in rehearsal, [director] Dexter Fletcher started talking about it in this really lovely way. It’s a romantic love song, but actually, it works perfectly well in our fantasy world to use it as a platonic expression of these two artists’ [John and Bernie Taupin] love for one another.
As soon as that idea came out of the rehearsal process, I felt very keenly that I knew what I was going to do with it. I knew we were absolutely going to do it live on set. It was the one song that I point-blank refused to have prerecorded because I knew how important it was, and I knew I wanted it to be this expression of Elton’s love for this person he’s met, this brother he’s never had. Elton’s home was less than ideal, and he finds home in this guy, and they’re still the best of friends 50 whatever years later.
That was the day that I really felt a huge weight of responsibility for, because I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I approached it very much like someone discovering it rather than writing it, because then I become a part of the audience to it, and then people experience it through me.