The transformation of Reginald Dwight from a teenaged piano prodigy in suburban Middlesex into globally famous pop star Elton John encompasses drugs, tantrums, a suicide attempt, a triumphant, definitive concert, a gay love affair with his manager and a broken engagement.
This story of Elton’s life, from 1970 to 1976, is being told by the film Rocketman, which is released in the UK on Wednesday.
Everything that made him has been recreated: wigs, shoes, the sex, the singing and even that famous gap in the front teeth.
The transformation of Reginald Dwight into Elton John encompasses drugs, tantrums, a suicide attempt, a triumphant, definitive concert, a gay love affair with his manager and a broken engagement
The hope is to follow the success of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which won four Oscars and has taken £700 million at the box office.
Certainly, there’s no shortage of drama in the source material. As Elton said: ‘It had to be as honest as possible. The lows were very low, but the highs were very high.’
His husband, David Furnish, a co-producer of the film, added: ‘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. Elton John is someone I think I know incredibly well, but then it’s also like watching a film about someone you don’t know at all. 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”.
The rehab that frames the story
In 1990, Elton went into rehab in a hospital in Chicago to fight addictions to drugs, food and alcohol. This period is used by the film to tell the tale of his rise to fame, with him heading into hospital dressed in a chicken costume, and then relating his life story to his therapist.
Director Dexter Fletcher said: ‘He’s our narrator, telling the story as he recalls it. He’s dealing with his demons and trying to see the light again.’
Elton, naturally shy, found that cocaine helped him to perform. He played Live Aid, recorded hits and got married, in 1984, to German recording engineer Renate Blauel, at the height of his addiction.
This story of Elton’s life, from 1970 to 1976, is being told by the film Rocketman, which is released in the UK on Wednesday. Included in the film is a sex scene between Elton and John Reid (left)
He later said: ‘I was in no condition to get married because I was a drug addict. I would have an epileptic seizure and turn blue, and people would find me on the floor and put me to bed, and then 40 minutes later I’d be snorting another line of cocaine.’
His life changed after he met Indiana teenager Ryan White, who’d contracted Aids through a blood transfusion.
After White died, it made him reconsider his life. Elton said he began by helping White and his family, ‘but they ended up helping me much more.
Ryan was the spark that helped me to recover from my addictions and start the Aids foundation. Within six months, I became sober.’
Bad times in Benedict Canyon
A pivotal scene is his 1975 suicide attempt.
Elton had released hits including Your Song, Tiny Dancer and Rocket Man, and was living in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles, with his mother and grandmother among his entourage.
One day, as they all lounged by the pool, Elton appeared in a dressing gown and announced: ‘I have taken 85 Valiums, I shall die within the hour.’
Then he threw himself into the pool.
He was saved by doctors who pumped his stomach.
Elton later said: ‘It was stress. I’d been working non-stop for five years. But it was typical me. There was no way I was going to kill myself doing that. And, of course, my grandmother came out with the perfect line: “I suppose we’ve all got to go home now.”
Richard Madden, who plays John Reid in the film, said scenes are ‘never fun to shoot’ but that the encounter was important for Elton John’s progression because it was the first time he had had sex
‘I’ve got that resilient thing inside me. But I wasn’t a happy bunny.’
He says he wouldn’t know how to live offstage.
‘There was no balance in my life. . . . The self-loathing I had, walking around the house, not bathing for three or four days, staying up watching pornography all the time, drinking a bottle of scotch a day.
And I was bulimic as well, so I wouldn’t eat for three days, then gorge on six bacon sandwiches and a pint of ice cream and throw it up.
‘And then have a shower and start the whole procedure all over again. There was no self-respect there whatsoever. It was just f***ing horrible.
‘You look back and think: ‘How on earth could I have done that?’ But I did.’
Search for the Star
Elton and David Furnish, who runs Rocket Pictures, first mooted a telling of the story nearly 20 years ago.
By 2012, though, nothing had happened but Elton promised an interviewer that there would be an announcement ‘very soon’, adding that pop star Justin Timberlake was top of his wish-list to play him.
Meanwhile, Lee Hall — the man behind the Elton-backed musical Billy Elliot — was hired to devise a script covering the early years of Elton’s career.
Everything that made Elton John has been recreated: wigs, shoes, the sex, the singing and even that famous gap in the front teeth. Above: him with lyricist Bernie Taupin shortly after they signed contracts with Dick James Music in 1968
In 2013, the Batman actor Tom Hardy was hired to play him, but ‘creative differences’ meant the deal collapsed.
It seems that Hollywood suits were nervous at the idea of making a film featuring drug abuse and a gay love affair between Elton and his manager John Reid.
By chance, David Furnish had spoken with British producer Matthew Vaughn about their trouble in getting the film off the ground. Vaughn offered finance but felt Tom Hardy was too old, at 41, to play Elton at the start of his career. Hardy was also due to lip-sync the hits.
Instead, Vaughn suggested Taron Egerton, the 29-year-old Welsh star of the Kingsman spy films, who can sing.
The Bald Truth
Elton’s receding hairline was a challenge. Variously, Taron Egerton’s hair was dyed, thinned out with a razor or he wore a bald cap.
He said: ‘I spent six months with my hairline up. It was just horrible. They had to reshave it every day. I looked like Krusty the Clown.’
A set of false teeth was made to replicate Elton’s gap-toothed smile, but director Dexter Fletcher was convinced Egerton wouldn’t be able to sing or speak properly with false teeth. In the end, visual-effects artists painted the gap in.
fans will need to leave their encyclopaedic knowledge behind, as liberties have been taken.
A key part of the film is Elton’s debut at the Troubador rock club in Los Angeles in 1970. He’s seen floating in the air in a fantasy sequence as he sings Crocodile Rock. In fact, the song was released three years later.
Clothes Maketh Man
Stage costumes have been designed by Julian Day, who did the outfits worn by Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Taron Egerton had between 50 and 100 hours of costume fittings.
The decision was made not to slavishly recreate Elton’s outrageous stage looks (left), but to create new ones. They include headdresses with devil horns (above) and fabric feathers. Also red and blue platform shoes with wings — which Elton was so taken with that he asked if he could keep them after filming.
An outfit for the song Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has ruby red slippers made of Swarovski crystals as a nod to the movie The Wizard Of Oz, a silver shirt for Tin Man, a straw hat for Scarecrow and a fake fur coat for Lion.
Taron Egerton had between 50 and 100 hours of costume fittings for the new film
Elton gave the film-makers artistic licence with his story. Director Fletcher says: ‘Elton is all about fantasy and imagination and magic. We wanted to use his songs to elevate this to be more than just a biopic. We wanted a magical fantasy that tells the story of his life, or at least elements of his life.
Brothers in Arms
‘Elton and Bernie [Taupin, his lyricist] are brothers and they love each other. This was a great opportunity to put their relationship front and centre,’ said Taron Egerton.
Taupin, the son of a Lincolnshire stockman who left school aged 15, met Elton in 1967 after they both answered an advert for talent placed in the NME by Liberty records. Neither passed the audition.
They have worked together on more than 30 albums, with a hiatus between 1977 and 1979.
The film shows their extraordinary working routine. Elton spent January 1972 at the Chateau d’Herouville in France with Bernie and his band to record the album Honky Chateau. Each morning, Elton played piano in the chateau’s breakfast space while Bernie would conjure the lyrics upstairs.
After he’d written some words, he sent them downstairs and quickly, often within 30 minutes, Elton would have written a melody.
Famously, they wrote nine songs in three days this way.
David Bowie was peeved when his re-release of Space Oddity was leap-frogged in the charts by Elton’s Rocket Man in 1973. Bowie’s then wife Angie told him: ‘Other people can sing about space travel, too.’
No Elton on the Soundtrack
Star Taron Egerton sang all the Elton John songs on the soundtrack, and they were produced by Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George.
Star Taron Egerton sang all the Elton John songs on the soundtrack, and they were produced by Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George
Elton himself sings only once — a duet with Egerton in a new composition (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again. It plays over the end credits.
Taron had 18 months of vocal coaching for the role and didn’t want to sound like a carbon copy of Elton John.
Too much sex?
There has been controversy over the amount of sex and nudity in the film. It is expected to be rated 15 in the UK.
This will affect its box office takings, as higher rated films play to smaller audiences.
Bohemian Rhapsody, which some complained ‘straightwashed’ Freddie Mercury’s sexuality, was a 12A.
Wyck Godfrey, of Paramount, says: ‘Elton’s life is an R-rated life [the certification in the U.S., meaning that no one under 17 can be admitted without an accompanying parent or guardian].
‘We had to find the right balance. We looked at the drug use, language, sex scenes, and we had to tell the story clearly but not in a way that you start to push an audience away, and not in a way that’s exploitative.’
For his part, Taron Egerton said: ‘I was never interested in doing a sanitised, Disney version of him.’
Included in the film is a sex scene between Elton and John Reid.
Richard Madden, who plays Reid, has said: ‘Sex scenes are never fun to shoot, but I only ever do these things if there’s a real justification. This is the first time Elton ever had sex with anyone, so that’s why it’s a relevant scene, in terms of his progression.’
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
The song Someone Saved My Life Tonight was inspired by a 1968 suicide attempt by Elton when he was unhappily engaged to pickled onion heiress Linda Hannon.
They had met in a Sheffield nightclub and were living together in London, but Elton was struggling with his sexuality. He put his head in a oven, but left the gas on low and the windows wide open.
In 1970, just before he hit the big time with Your Song, he jilted her a month before their wedding, waking her up and telling her. He then asked his stepfather to fetch him, and they never saw each other again. Linda, now 75 and living in Texas, said last month: ‘I loved him very much, I really did, and I thought he loved me.’
I’m John… Elton John
After his star turn in Rocketman, Taron Egerton has been tipped as the next James Bond.
Egerton (pictured left with Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin, with their real-life counterparts right) grew up near Liverpool.
His father ran a bed-and-breakfast, his mum worked in social services. He graduated from RADA in 2012.
Apart from appearing in Kingsman: Secret Service, he played Eddie the Eagle in a comedy-drama film about the eccentric ski-jumper.
After his star turn in Rocketman, Taron Egerton (left) has been tipped as the next James Bond