By Marc Malkin
LOS ANGELES (Variety) – When Paramount was getting ready to release the first images from “Rocketman,” Elton John was shown one photo of Taron Egerton in character sitting on a plane.
“It’s a picture of Taron sitting on the Starship, the private jet Elton had in the ‘70s, a big Boeing 707,” says David Furnish, “” producer and John’s husband of almost five years (they’ve been together for 26 years). “He’s on the sofa with the glasses and the hot pants. I sent it to Elton and Elton said, ‘I don’t remember taking that. When did I take that picture?’” He thought it was him. Elton was like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. It’s uncanny.”
Three months after Rami Malek won the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Egerton is set to appear as Sir Elton.
The Dexter Fletcher-directed “Rocketman,” also starring Richard Madden, Jamie Bell and Bryce Dallas Howard, premieres out of competition on Thursday. “Cannes has always had a special history for us,” Furnish tells Variety. “Elton’s ‘I’m Still Standing’ was filmed there and Elton and I saw ‘Billy Elliot’ for the very first time at its world premiere at the festival in 2000. [John went on to write the music for the Tony-winning musical adaptation of the movies.] So we have happy memories and hopefully good luck there.”
“Rocketman” is a look at the first half of the 72-year-old John’s life, from his early days as a child prodigy in working class London through his fame and fortune of the 1970s and 1980s to his nearly fatal plunge into drug addiction.
For Furnish, who has two children with John — Zachary Jackson Levon, 8, and Elijah Joseph Daniel, 6 —being on set as they filmed the darker moments of the rocker’s life hit him hard. “ is somebody that I think I know incredibly well, but then also it’s like watching a film about somebody you don’t know at all. The Elton in all that madness is not the Elton I know. At times, he’s a bit of a monster and also, deeply unhappy. That’s hard. Many times as I watched the film, I wanted to go and give him a hug, like I could help him. I thought, ‘God, you’ve been through a lot.’”
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
With both John and Mercury experiencing the same dangerous excesses of drugs, sex and rock and roll, the comparisons between “Bohemian” and “Rocketman” are inevitable.
“Rocketman” is rated R, whereas “Bohemian” fell into the more family friendly PG-13, helping it gross $903 million worldwide. Just how adult “Rocketman” has been hotly scrutinized since reports claimed that Paramount insisted they tone down a love scene between Egerton and Madden, who plays John’s first lover and manager John Reid. Fletcher insists whatever ended up on the cutting room floor was because it didn’t work for the movie and not because of a directive to make things less explicit. “The real story is that I shot the love scene and like any scene, we go through the edit of the scene and we look at how it works best for what we’re trying to communicate,” Fletcher told Variety last month while promoting the film at CinemaCon. “That’s down to me, that’s how I need to tell the story at the particular moment.”
The brouhaha reminds “Rocketman” producer Matthew Vaughn of “Kick-Ass,” the R-rated action comedy he directed in 2010.
“I remember when I made ‘Kick-Ass’ and the headline was that a little girl in the movie says the c-word,” Vaughn says. “There’s more to that movie than that four seconds. Likewise there’s more to this movie than sex. I was a bit surprised that everyone had gone so bananas over sex. I genuinely felt like the world had moved on. I’m sure if this was a man and woman having a sex scene no one would be batting an eye. It’s a little off that two guys kiss and everyone is talking about it. It’s a bit sad.”
“Rocketman” has seen some other bumps along the way. The film was first developed at Disney with photographer David LaChapelle directing after he helmed the video for John’s 2001 single, “This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore” featuring Justin Timberlake as a young John. LaChapelle dropped out because he wanted to give his attention to his fine art, Furnish said. Michael Gracey was then attached with Tom Hardy to star as John before producer Matthew Vaughn joined the project. “I thought Tom was just too old for the role,” Vaughn tells Variety. “He has to start off as an 18-year-old. I asked David if Tom could sing and he said, ‘Our plan was lip syncing.’ I feel like an idiot saying it now, but I said, ‘Nobody is going to watch a movie where the lead character is lip syncing.’ Cut to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and me being proven wrong.”
Exit Hardy. Enter Egerton.
“I knew how well Taron could sing and musicals are like action movies,” Vaughn says. “If you look at Tom Cruise, you know he’s doing it. I’m hoping people are going to lose their minds for Taron when they hear him sing.”
Fletcher was next to join the project after Gracey had moved onto “The Greatest Showman.” (Vaughn admits he wanted to direct “Rocketman” but he was already committed to the directing his third installment of his “Kingsman” franchise.)
In just two days, all eyes — and ears — will finally be on “Rocketman.”
“I think the most exciting thing about Taron as a singer throughout the whole process is how he grew,” Furnish says. “When he started he was very theatrical. He would sing words like he was on a [Broadway] stage. Rock stars don’t sing like that. Elton said to Taron, ‘Look, you need to relax more. Don’t try and copy me. Feel the spirit of the song.”
And feel the spirit he did. So much so, Furnish says, “that when we got to the later end of the production, we went back and rerecorded a lot of the original vocals that we laid down because Taron had grown so much.”