Chris Knight: Rocketman plays more like a live-theatre jukebox musical brought to the screen
“You’ve made a young man from Aberystwyth incredibly happy, and you’ve made a 72-year-old rock star even more happy.” That’s Welsh actor Taron Egerton facing the press after the Cannes premiere of Rocketman, a musical biopic that covers “the troughs as well as the peaks” of the man born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, though better known to the world as Elton Hercules John.
John was also in Cannes for the world premiere of the film, which opens in Canada on May 31. He performed “I’m Still Standing” after the screening, before ceding the stage to Egerton (who does his own singing in the film) for a performance of the movie’s title song. Rocketman even closes with a musical number on the beach in the French seaside resort town, a bit of pandering I can only refer to as “Cannes-dering.”
Egerton, moved to tears during the screening and almost again in the press conference, said he is proud to call John his friend after working closely with him on the film. “I’ve prepared by being with him … you really can ask him anything. He’ll tell you everything. Not a lot makes him blush.”
As opposed to the more traditional biopic structure of the recent Freddy Mercury film Bohemian Rhapsody – which has drawn inevitable comparisons, not least because Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher stepped in to finish that film as well – Rocketman plays more like a live-theatre jukebox musical brought to the screen. Songs are played for emotional beats rather than factual ones, and the film imagines John walking out on a Madison Square Garden concert to check into rehab, still dressed in one of his outrageous stage costumes, although even that is inspired by his wardrobe rather than being a perfect copy.
“It’s not that we didn’t do our homework,” said Egerton. “We’re trying to be authentically creative.”
Rocketman doesn’t shy away from John’s excesses – we see him drinking heavily, taking copious amounts of drugs, and owning up to the fact that he “f–ked anything that moved.” But Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays John’s mother in the film, remarked on the joyous fact that despite all this (and unlike many musical biopics), John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin (played by Jamie Bell) are still alive and well. “There was none of that loss,” she said. “There was only celebration at the end.” John has been sober for the last 25 years.
Howard said she relied on Egerton and Fletcher to help her through the process of creating her character as more than a one-dimensional parent. “Even one on one, me and Elton, we wouldn’t have gotten to that place,” she said. “No one wants to talk shit about their mother.”
While most of the questions in Cannes have been directed at Egerton, British journalists here were aware of the fact that Scottish actor Richard Madden, who plays John’s former manager and one-time lover John Reid, has been pegged as a possible replacement for Daniel Craig as James Bond.
“It’s very flattering to be involved in that conversation at all,” Madden replied diplomatically. “But it’s all just talk. I’m sure next week it’ll be someone different.” At which point, Egerton leaned forward into his microphone and began cheekily humming the Bond theme song: “Dum-diddle-um-dum, bum bum bum dum-diddle-um dum …” It wasn’t “Rocketman” or “Your Song,” but the crowd lapped it up.