The untold truth of Rocketman

At a time when everyone and their mother is getting a biopic, it's almost shocking that Sir Elton John didn't already have one. After all, he's one of the most famous entertainers of all time — a man who has sold hundreds of millions of records and whose output has been instrumental to decades of rock and pop. Showing up in the wake of the Oscar-winning glitz of Bohemian Rhapsody and the Netflix adaption of Motley Crue's The Dirt, Rocketman may seem like it's going to ride the coattails of the current trends that have made the rock biopic genre hotter than ever. But in reality, the movie has been in development for several years, so it'll likely be carving its own space.

Though Rocketman may not have faced quite as many hurdles during creation as, say, Bohemian Rhapsody, it has been hanging in development limbo for a good few years, which in turn means its production process has featured all sorts of strange twists and turns. Come, let's take a look at the strange stories behind Rocketman. (You know, the movie, not the song, which is actually "Rocket Man." It's annoying when they give different properties overlapping names, isn't it?)

Elton John originally wanted Justin Timberlake to play him

In 2012, Rocketman was little more than a glimmer in the eye of everyone involved, but the backstage was already plenty busy. According to Rolling Stone, Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall was already writing the script and Sir Elton John himself was confident on the tone and timbre the eventual movie would take. At that point, the film didn't have a director or a solid lead attached, but John already had an eye on the man he felt would be best equipped to play him: Justin Timberlake. The NSYNC heartthrob turned solo superstar and actor may seem like a choice out of left field, but the inspiration didn't come entirely out of the blue. In 2001, Timberlake starred in a music video for John's song "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore," playing a '70s version of Elton John, and apparently Elton really liked the job he did. As Ultimate Classic Rock reports, Timberlake went on to revisit the role in 2013, when he opened his Saturday Night Live hosting gig with a sketch where John is playing at the funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

However, making movies is a volatile business, and the first name floated is rarely the one in the final credits. Justin Timberlake as Elton John was never meant to be, at least in movie length, but the role would go on to see even stranger twists and turns.

Tom Hardy as Elton John

Tom Hardy is one of the most versatile actors of his generation. You know him as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and as Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road, and for a few, glorious years, he was set to become your new (and presumably much scarier than the original) Sir Elton John. As late as 2017, Hardy told Inquirer.net he was attached to the role of Elton John but that it was on hold. (At the same time, he did lock down the role of Al Capone because you should never let yourself get stuck in a type.)

But Hardy had been involved with Rocketman for a while. Way back in 2015, he was practicing for the role, and told NME he was struggling with the musical aspects because his lack of singing ability was really taking him out of his comfort zone. Note that he wasn't even actually planning to sing the songs — he even found it difficult to pretend to convincingly perform like John. This, along with the fact that Hardy is a ridiculously busy man, may have contributed to his eventually dropping out of the role. Another qualified actor went on to take over as John, but seeing as Hardy used to dabble in rap, it's hard to not feel at least a little bitter about the turn of fate that robbed the world of a movie where a rapping Mad Max plays Elton John.

Directorial changes

No prolonged production worth its salt would even dream of wrapping up before the director has changed at least once, and as Deadline reports, Rocketman is no exception. The first man to helm the project was advertisement director Michael Gracey. Rocket Pictures CEO Steve Hamilton Shaw was confident that Gracey was the best man for the project and wasn't afraid to heap praise on him in 2013. According to Shaw, "Michael has an innovative, imaginative and compelling vision for the film. We want to create an experience that surprises and moves audiences and knew immediately that he was the perfect director to take them on this journey."

True as this may have felt, by the time Paramount Pictures greenlit Rocketman in 2018 Gracey had already directed the P.T. Barnum musical drama The Greatest Showman and was no longer attached to Rocketman. As Deadline tells us, however, Rocketman production managed to land on its feet. The movie found its new helmsman in Dexter Fletcher (above), who apparently spent the year 2018 carving a career as something of a go-to replacement director in high-profile musical movies. After all, Fletcher also replaced Bryan Singer as the director of Bohemian Rhapsody, albeit after filming had started.

Taron Egerton as Elton John

If the people who were originally considered for the role of Sir Elton John seemed like left-field choices, the third and final man attached to the role may very well take the cake. If you look at his acting credentials, Taron Egerton is best known as the star of the Kingsman franchise and the titular bowman in the 2018 reimagining of Robin Hood. That's the CV of a dedicated big-budget action hero, and he doesn't make a ton of sense to play Sir Elton John. However, Egerton seems more than eager to break away from his usual fare. According to the Independent, before he was cast as John, he was "desperate" to do a musical and was actively looking for someone who would give him the opportunity. Deadline notes that he soon started gravitating toward Rocketman and made it clear he would very much like to play the lead role.

It probably didn't hurt Egerton's chances that he had an inside connection. As Variety reports, director Matthew Vaughn acts as a co-producer for Rocketman, and he had already worked with Egerton on two Kingsman films and Eddie the Eagle.

​It will not be an ordinary biopic

Musician biopics tend to take a few liberties with their subject matter, if only because no one wants to watch a movie that accurately depicts the endless tedium of touring life. Bohemian Rhapsody treated reality as a rough guideline at best, and The Dirt occasionally stopped a scene dead just so it could have a band member break the fourth wall and flat out inform the viewers that the scene they just watched was a total fabrication. According to Collider, Rocketman aims to take this tendency for embellishment to the next level by being a biopic in name only. Star Taron Egerton says instead of a by-the-book retelling of Sir Elton John's life, the movie is more of a fantasy musical that recreates the "important beats" of John's life using the appropriate hits from his vast musical catalog.

Interestingly, this fantasy aspect of Rocketman seems to have been around right from the beginning. According to Rolling Stone, John himself said in 2012 that the movie would be "a surreal look at my life, and not just a factual look at my life." He also compared the intended tone of the movie to the gleefully unrealistic Baz Luhrmann musical Moulin Rouge! and since the Rocketman trailer features a few heavily stylized and choreographed musical numbers, it's probably safe to say this vision makes it to the final cut.

Elton John's own production company is involved

If someone was making a huge movie about their life, most people would probably want to have at least some say about its content. Elton John is no exception, and being a wealthy megastar, he has been able to gain a whole lot more access to the movie process than a regular Joe ever could. As NME tells us, John has his very own film company called Rocket Pictures. Though the company's name might lead you to think otherwise, it's not just some vanity thing he whipped up for this particular project — Rocket Pictures is a bona fide production house whose previous biggest hit, Gnomeo & Juliet, grossed around $200 million.

While Rocketman is potentially a much bigger fish and has a plethora of other production companies involved, John's husband David Furnish still acts as the movie's producer, and John himself is listed as an executive producer. Interestingly, Variety tells us that despite John's presumably considerable sway in the process, he has opted not to hold the reins too tightly. Star Taron Egerton says John gave the production crew his blessing to use artistic license wherever necessary, and as a result, they "really went to town" with it.

Elton John and Taron Egerton have collaborated before

When Taron Egerton was announced as the lead in Rocketman, fans of the Kingsman movie franchise might have lifted a knowing eyebrow. After all, they knew Egerton had already collaborated with Sir Elton John, who had a sizable cameo role as himself in 2017's Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Apparently, this wasn't meant to be a stealth nod to Egerton's future role as the Rocket Man, but a completely coincidental thing that was championed by director Matthew Vaughn. Cinema Blend tells us Vaughn wanted John to make an appearance in the first Kingsman, but the musician turned him down. (According to ScreenRant, the blow of his refusal was so severe that star Colin Firth actually wrote to John and begged the singer to reconsider.) After the movie came out, John loved Kingsman: The Secret Service so much that he regretted his decision. When Vaughn repeated his offer for the sequel, John did not repeat his mistake. He gracefully accepted and spent his time on set being a perfectly polite professional.

Taron Egerton has some serious singing talent

Like Tom Hardy, Taron Egerton is known for his hard-man roles, so it was initially surprising to find him attached to the role of Elton John. However, while Hardy fully admits he's a horrible singer, Egerton actually can sing, and does so with some enthusiasm. According to W Magazine, not only does the actor have some serious pipes, but said pipes also sound almost disturbingly like John himself. Egerton's own singing features heavily both in the movie and on its soundtrack, and his impression of John's iconic singing voice is apparently so spot on that the singer gave Egerton a full blessing to record the songs as his own interpretations. John has even said "I don't think I've heard anyone sing my songs better than Taron," and according to his husband David Furnish, the star was completely blown away when he heard Egerton's versions of some of his old classics.

It's a good thing that Egerton can deliver because otherwise John could have been quite a demanding taskmaster. He even specifically told Egerton not to worry about impersonating his vocals or mannerisms so much, but rather to "embody his spirit." And it seems Egerton is great at both!

​It runs the risk of getting an R rating

In a world where "rated R" is generally not considered good news for most blockbusters, Rocketman is breaking the norm by not only gearing up for a potential R rating, but outright expecting it. According to Hollywood Reporter, the movie includes enough drug and sex scenes to prevent it from being PG-13. That's pretty understandable because Elton John's drug addiction and struggles with his sexuality were a huge part of his most successful years. Going all out with an R rating may also be refreshing change from Bohemian Rhapsody, which opted to go PG-13 and subsequently dealt with much of Freddie Mercury's sexuality offscreen.

Still, it's worth mentioning that we don't know just which direction the film will take until it actually gets its rating and hits the theaters. Director Dexter Fletcher has pointed out that most of the hype around Rocketman is still just speculation because as of March 2019 he was still in the process of editing the movie. However, he has described the end product as a "no holds barred musical fantasy that Paramount and producers passionately support and believe in," which could suggest they're really going for it.

The filmmakers promise the movie won't avoid addressing his sexuality

According to Hollywood Reporter, Rocketman will not shy away from covering Sir Elton John's homosexuality. On the contrary, there will be an intimate scene between Taron Egerton and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones), who portrays John's early manager and lover Richard Reid. Of course, whether the scene actually makes it in the movie is still in the air, and there were rumors that it had been cut.

The filmmakers, on the other hand, have so far denied that Rocketman will be straightwashed in any way. Director Dexter Fletcher has promised that the finished movie will cover all aspects of its subject, and star Egerton has backed this up. Egerton says Elton John gave him full permission to portray him as "ugly" when necessary, and the movie apparently starts with John in rehab, reflecting on the most important events of his colorful life. Of course, Fletcher has also said the movie will be more John's memory of his life than his actual, historically documented life. Given that Elton is involved in the production, we'll probably only be seeing the bits he wants to show us.

​There's already a backlash

Sir Elton John wouldn't be Sir Elton John without at least some controversy, and Rocketman is no exception. According to NME, there has been a backlash against the movie even before it's out, largely thanks to its lead actor … or rather, because of his sexuality. Some people have taken offense to the fact that Taron Egerton, a straight actor, is playing a gay icon. According to critics, a straight man is not the best possible choice to show the singer confronting his sexual identity.

Actors have been known to get defensive when questioned about being right for roles, but Egerton has addressed the concerns with refreshingly open arms. Instead of insisting that he's best for the part regardless of what people say, he has praised the inclusive nature of the LGBTQ community and the way they have helped him feel "more at home in a gay club than at a football match." He hopes this inclusiveness and his own ease with the community will also help people accept him as John.