Move over Bohemian Rhapsody there’s a new musical biopic in town Rocketman and this one’s actually good.
Rocketman, tells the story of the living legend Elton John detailing his years as a prodigy at the Royal Academy of Music, his influential and enduring friendship with his songwriter Bernie Taupin, and his struggles with drugs, drink and depression.
Earlier this week we were lucky enough to get a phone call from the film’s producer Matthew Vaughn who shed some light on the film’s production, Elton’s desire for the film to show him warts and all and Hollywood’s reluctance to make the film in the first place.
UNILAD: You first became interested in producing an Elton John biopic while working on Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle, what was it specifically about Elton’s story that interested you as a filmmaker?
Matthew Vaughn: Well actually I first became interested about the film four years earlier when it was announced at Cannes, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow that’s a movie I can’t wait to see’, because I’m an Elton John fan, and I knew a lot about Elton just growing up and reading about him, and following his career.
So while we were filming [Kingman 2] I asked Elton, ‘What’s happening with Rocketman? I can’t wait to see it’ and he was like, ‘Well we’re having problems with the rating because we want to do an R-rated, original musical that will be warts and all, but also fantastical and over the top, and gritty and fun’.
And I was like, ‘Have you ever seen a Marv film [Vaughn’s production company], that’s what we do we do successful r-rated films but we also take genres and we subvert them and do pure entertainment’.
So they asked me to read the script, which I did and I loved it and I was like, ‘This is fantastic’. You the know the fact everyone in Hollywood’s so scared of it is what I love about it, and they were scared of Kingsman, Kickass and Lock Stock this is what we’re all about making the movie that Hollywood doesn’t get but people will love.
UNILAD: And I believe it was you who brought Taron in to play Elton John? Was he excited when he first read the script?
Matthew Vaughn: Oh god yeah, Taron was… well Taron’s audition piece for drama school was singing Your Song and I’ve made, well now, four films with Taron and I just knew this was the role he was born to play.
I knew he could do the drama brilliantly, and he could do the singing brilliantly, and I knew that the singing would impact the drama and the drama would impact the singing so it was one of those moments where a team just came together.
You know I knew Dexter [Fletcher] was right to direct, Elton, David and I all got on so well, and Giles [Martin] came on board to be the musical director so I was like, ‘Guys we’ve got the band together let’s go make some rock and roll and screw everyone else’.
UNILAD: And what was Taron’s reaction when you told him he was going to play Elton John?
Matthew Vaughn: He said, ‘Will David and Elton let me?’ and I was like, ‘When they hear you sing they’ll bend over backwards to have you play [Elton] and they heard him sing and they were immediately like, ‘Yes, let’s do this’.
UNILAD: Was that something Elton felt strongly about, that whoever played him had to be able to sing?
Matthew Vaughn: No, originally Tom Hardy was attached and I was like, ‘Well I know Tom can do the drama fine but can he sing’? Anyway, it took so long to get the project off the ground that by the time we started it making it Tom was too old, and I was the idiot saying, ‘No one will pay for a ticket where the lead actor is lip-synching’, cut to Bohemian Rhapsody making $900,000,000 so I got that wrong.
I was adamant though that whoever played Elton had to sing because for me that’s what the story was about, that’s where the connective tissue is, and I believe that when you watch lip-synching you don’t really feel the emotion, you’re just watching the person.
When they’re actually singing though they’re putting in real emotion it’s not just delivering the notes, they’re delivering the tone, the emotion, the narrative and it helps people realise how powerful it is hearing Taron belt out Elton John but without doing an impression of him.
UNILAD: Taron and Elton met on the set of Kingsman 2, what was Elton’s reaction to hearing it was going to be Taron playing him in the film?
Matthew Vaughn: Well [Elton] adored Taron during filming and we all go on very well and the creativity really works when there’s a bunch of people in a room with strong opinions who get on, and that’s what we had.
So when I said to Elton and David that Taron could sing the songs and was the right age for the role it was sort of a no brainer and everyone was very happy, it was a really enjoyable experience making this movie which you don’t get often.
UNILAD: And how did Dexter Fletcher come on board the film? Was he already working on Bohemian Rhapsody or was it something like Sunshine on Leith that made you think he was the right director for Rocketman?
Matthew Vaughn: What happened with that was, we’d done Eddie the Eagle together as a director-producer team, he’s a good mate, we’ve been friends since Lock Stock, and I had Elton John and Giles Martin covering the music side so I needed someone who could tell the story, capture the emotion of the story, and also someone who Taron felt comfortable with going to the depths that Taron had to go to in this film, and it was brave what Taron did and when you’re being brave you need someone to catch you when you fall.
So the way he got involved was, there was a director attached but went off to make The Greatest Showman so wasn’t available, I read the script and wanted to direct but I wasn’t available so I thought Dexter should do it. And just as we were prepping Bohemian Rhapsody happened and I said, ‘Dexter why don’t you go off for a few months’, and we joked this is his university degree in 1970s rock biopics and then come back and do Rocketman with us.
UNILAD: You mentioned the depths that Taron has to go to in Rocketman, people have accused Bohemian Rhapsody of skirting around the darker elements in Freddie’s life…
Matthew Vaughn: You mean it skirts round who Freddie really was…
UNILAD: [Laughing] Well yes… but Rocketman really gets to grips with the darker side of Elton’s life, how comfortable was he with being portrayed that way?
Matthew Vaughn: God yeah! He was pushing for it! Listen, he had the studios telling him, ‘We’ll make this tomorrow with a $100,000,000 budget if you get rid of those [darker] moments’ and you’ve got Elton going, ‘Well I don’t want to get rid of those moments’.
The film up there is the film Elton, David, Taron, me and Dexter wanted to make and no one else in Hollywood wanted to do it until Paramount, to their credit stepped in and very much got behind it, they’ve really been the perfect partner.
UNILAD: And when was the decision made to not have it be a straight-up biopic but introduce the more fantastical elements?
Matthew Vaughn: That was all Elton and David. Dexter and I were lucky enough to inherit a really good screenplay and when I read it I was like ‘Yay, he sings Rocketman underwater and turns into a rocket’.
You know all the big moments were there and I was like this is great, it’s a real spectacle, not just someone singing a song on stage twelve times.
UNILAD: And how did Elton feel when he first saw the film?
Matthew Vaughn: He was delighted. You know I knew he was watching the film and he called me up and I was very, very nervous to hear his reaction because for me Elton’s reaction was the most important, this is what the movie’s about.
So we tried to make it everything Elton wanted, fantastical and grand and warts and all but there’s a moment where you think, ‘This is what he said he wanted but now he’s seen it is it really what he wanted?’
But he loved it, absolutely loved it and to hear Elton John thanking me in a way that was so passionate and appreciative was something really special. Tick that off the bucket list.
UNILAD: I know we’re a long way off next year’s Oscars but Bohemian Rhapsody’s success must have made you think there’s a chance for this film to do well during next year’s awards season?
Matthew Vaughn: Listen, awards ceremonies and Matthew Vaughn don’t mix very well. I’m sure there are plenty of people voting in the awards who are like, ‘Bollocks, are we going to have to give him something this year?’
I think if I wasn’t involved it would have a much better chance of getting some nominations but I think my name might put a few people off so I don’t know. And of course I didn’t do this for awards, it’s one of the few movies I didn’t even do for money either, I did it because it was a passion project.
You know I’ve never really understood the idea of making a movie for awards because it sort of feels like you’ll do something quite safe and it’s never been something I’ve chased so I’m not the person to ask.
UNILAD: Well we won’t keep you any longer but we do have one last question about the new Kingsman film you’re working on. how’s it going.
Matthew Vaughn: Well I’m working on the prequel but Kingsman 3 will start shooting at the end of the year or early next year, but the prequel I’ve just wrapped. It was the toughest but most rewarding shoot I’ve ever had.
And I think it’s going to surprise people, it’s surprising me, and I mean that in a good way. It’s the sort of film that people are… you know my nickname for it is ‘The Man Who Would Be Kingsman’ and that’s all I can say but it’s very, very different but it’s still very much in my wheelhouse.
You know it’s funny people have pointed out that I’ve done Rocketman, Kingsman and X-Men and they’re asking who’s the next ‘man’ in my life is going to be.
They’re even asking why he wasn’t Kick-Ass man, but I just try and make films that are entertaining in different ways and the prequel is very, very different and I hope people will be surprised as they were when they saw Kick-Ass or the original Kingsman or even the X-Men I made.
Rocketman is in cinemas across the UK now.
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More of a concept than a journalist, Tom Percival was forged in the bowels of Salford University from which he emerged grasping a Masters in journalism.
Since then his rise has been described by himself as ‘meteoric’ rising to the esteemed rank of Social Editor at UNILAD as well as working at the BBC, Manchester Evening News, and ITV.
He credits his success to three core techniques, name repetition, personality mirroring, and never breaking off a handshake.