How 'Rocketman' Director Dexter Fletcher Broke the Traditional Biopic Formula

Taron Egerton and director Dexter Fletcher on the set of 'Rocketman.' | Paramount Pictures
Taron Egerton and director Dexter Fletcher on the set of 'Rocketman.' | Paramount Pictures

It's appropriate, given Rocketman's central message of love and self-acceptance, that director Dexter Fletcher made it with his friends. The musical biopic about Elton John, using his music, his costumes, and moments from his life, had been in the works for more than a decade, and yet Fletcher's cast is almost entirely people he knows.

"Matthew Vaughn, the producer, was already working with Taron [Egerton] on Kingsman, which Elton [John] was on, and I'd worked with Taron before, so Matthew just got us all back together again," Fletcher told Thrillist. "A lot of the actors I'd worked with before. Stephen Graham [who plays record mogul Dick James], for example, is an old friend. Tate Donovan [who plays Troubadour club owner Doug Weston], another great friend I'd always wanted to work with."

Jamie Bell was on top of the wishlist for Elton John's lyricist Bernie Taupin, and Fletcher suggested Bryce Dallas Howard as his Elizabeth Taylor-esque suburban mother, Sheila Dwight, to Matthew Vaughn offhand, not knowing that the producer would get a script in front of her right away. "She's an extremely canny person, to create a character that people would not expect of her," Fletcher said. "We wanted to find an actor who could bring this kind of appeal and charm and also someone who wanted to go to that darker, edgier place."

Because of the film's odd format -- not a straight-up biopic, nor a totally fictional musical, but something in between -- Fletcher was able to work under a sort of freedom that directors of biopics don't normally have. "I didn't have to be a slave to the chronology of when the songs were written or what they got written about, I just used them like in a musical, in that way," he explained. "And the more I exploited that opportunity, the more fantasy elements came into it, the more I would find things like 'I Want Love,' which happens in this sort of domestic family home, or 'Saturday Night's Alright,' or 'Rocket Man' at the bottom of the swimming pool, the Troubadour sequence. They're all flights of memory and feelings rather than fact."

Egerton as John and Jamie Bell as his best friend and lyricist Bernie Taupin. | Paramount Pictures

The "I Want Love" sequence, during which young Elton -- then still Reggie Dwight -- and his mother, grandmother, and father share one of John's more downbeat, emotional songs, allowed Fletcher to dive deep into the fantastical end of the spectrum, where the movie becomes more like a musical than a drama. "You have something like 'I Want Love,' where the characters open their hearts to the audience and clearly state what they want -- that's an advantage that a musical has that the other sorts perhaps don't," Fletcher said. "Because, a drama is all about the layers, and how we cover our true feelings, and then the audience is taken on that journey to discover them. But, with the musical, when someone sits down and sings 'I Want Love' and nobody else hears them, and they're all singing the same song, I think you understand on a fundamental level, this is the core of the movie is, the core of what these characters want."

"Rocket Man," with its sweeping camera moves that take Egerton out of a deep swimming pool and all the way to Dodgers Stadium, was one of the most complicated songs to shoot, simply because of the locations involved. That's not to mention getting Egerton at the bottom of a 15-meter tank and making sure he can breathe while he's mouthing along to the song. "The amount of self control it takes on his behalf was kind of extraordinary," Fletcher said. "There was a breathing apparatus, but he's alone down there."

And yet, though the movie is called Rocketman, and Egerton's performance of "Rocket Man" is one of the most unforgettable climactic moments of the movie, it's a different song that provides a musical throughline. From the opening strains at the beginning to when it finally appears as a full production number at the end, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is the emotional touchstone of the film, the song that states exactly where Elton John is, mentally and emotionally, during the worst time of his life.

"It became more and more powerful," Fletcher said. "'Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road' is the theme of recovery, it's the road to himself. It's the thing that Bernie says to him in that restaurant at the end that really carries through, that has to get to a moment of clarity that allows him to reluctantly take himself to that place of getting better. And what we discovered throughout the editing of the film and as we worked on the music and experimented with more and more things, that 'Yellow Brick Road' is so evocative and so powerful, and because it's circular in nature, the film, really. The rehab is circular. The cul de sac Reggie lives in is circular. Sometimes the beginning of the film only makes sense at the end."

Egerton as Elton John performing. | Paramount Pictures

Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of the film, and the aspect that's been praised in many critics' reviews, is its commitment to the "warts and all" approach, despite having all these elements of fantasy. It certainly seems groundbreaking considering how many watered-down movies of this kind are out there. Many audiences seemed relieved, even, to see a film about a real-life gay pop/rock star that didn't shy away from being honest about his life. Rocketman is very gay, at times very sexy, and at others very brutal and sad, balancing a commitment to be empathetic to the subject of the movie with remaining candid about what John went through and what he did.

"It's not a biopic, per se, but really a story of Elton John unpacking all of his issues and baggage whilst in rehab," Fletcher said. "I think it's about being as honest with your approach as you possibly can, and not trying to sugarcoat or hide anything. And, obviously, you can't cover everything. We're talking about two hours long, trying to fit in 35 years of a life, or more. So you can't cover everything, you have to be selective."

That's where the musical parts, having the ability to give the film's characters a space separate from the real world in which to air their grievances and say how they really feel, come in: "When you, hopefully, garner that empathy for them, later on when their behavior is abhorrent, or not particularly flattering, you hope the empathy of the audience understand psychologically where they're at, their pain and their hurt, that they're not just shallow venal bullies, but people who are deeply hurt on a fundamental level."

Those moments are when Rocketman is at its best: when it's using Elton John's songs, no matter how peppy they sound, as a mirror into the darkest parts of himself, instead of a mask to hide behind.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.