If you ask director Dexter Fletcher, the key to the key to Elton John biopic Rocketman is that, “in theory, it could have been about anybody.”
Of course, it’s not, as Fletcher quickly clarifies — it’s Elton’s story. But the point is that Rocketman isn’t so much a traditional biopic as it is a musical that happens to be set to Elton’s music. “We’d like to think that there’s a universality to the story that means that it’s not just so specific to Elton,” Fletcher said at a press event leading up to the movie’s release. “That’s why it’s not a biopic per se; it’s Elton’s recollections, his memories of how he felt at a certain time, and what that song meant to him.”
That’s why, for instance, the song “I Want Love,” which was released in 2001, is used in the film in 1956. Though that detail may pass over the heads of those only cursorily familiar with Elton’s work, the line that Rocketman walks between reality and fantasy is immediately evident. Characters burst into song regardless of whether or not they’re on stage, and it’s better when they do.
“I think I worried about going too normal, too pedestrian,” Fletcher said. “Once those fantasy moments started to happen, it was like, ‘Oh, this is really exciting, this is really amazing, this is really great. I want to make the whole film like this, it’s brilliant.’ But you’ve got to have the counterpoint. You’ve got to have the balance between them, and then you can do something like ‘I Want Love,’ which is, again, full of fantasy and magic and music, but in a very sort of pedestrian or suburban setting, a sort of mundane, domestic setting. I embraced both elements, is what I’m saying. I just wanted to keep this connective tissue between both.”
The shifting line between musical and reality was extant in Lee Hall’s original screenplay, which, for instance, had the “Saturday Night” sequence featuring people singing and dancing on the street. It was just up to Fletcher to figure out how to stage it all, using a fairground as a backdrop to emphasize the colors, lights, and magic of widening one’s horizons, as well as filling in different cultural and musical influences.
The “Rocket Man” sequence, which sees a grown-up Elton sinking in a pool towards a version of his younger self, was also already written. “It is the very backbone of the film in that it’s his story: he flies high, he burns bright, and that comes at a cost,” Fletcher explained, describing how the striking sequence came together and comparing that sinking to the way that, earlier in the film, Elton floats into the air during his triumphant debut at the Troubadour rock club. “‘Rocket Man’ becomes, as I say, the central spine of the film musically, because it is the one song that crosses over very clearly from fantasy to reality, back to fantasy.”
That shift back and forth is exactly what makes Rocketman so special, and sets it apart from its traditional biopic peers, though, as per Fletcher, “it’s a memory rather than a biopic.” Everything was made the way they imagined Elton would remember them, e.g. a little bigger, a little wilder, a little brighter.
In the end, it’s a gambit that worked on Elton himself, too. According to Fletcher, [costume designer] Julian Day’s goal was to make one costume “that Elton says, ‘I wish I’d worn that.’” As Fletcher took Elton through the costume drawings, Elton paused on the orange devil suit actor Taron Egerton wears at the beginning of the film. His words? “Cor, I wish I’d worn that.”