Elton John is not a nostalgist. Neither is his songwriting partner of more than 50 years, Bernie Taupin, who supplies the lyrics that inspire John’s melodies. “I think one of the keys that has driven us all these years, it’s the fact that we never look back,” Taupin said.
But now the world can witness their history, thanks to “Rocketman,” the musical fantasy that traces John’s transformation from the piano prodigy Reginald Dwight, born in a hamlet outside London, to the over-the-top showman (played by Taron Egerton) with a slew of global hits. He met Taupin (Jamie Bell onscreen) by chance after both answered an ad in a British music magazine.
The film, directed by Dexter Fletcher and co-produced by David Furnish, John’s husband, is unflinching about John’s rise, his childhood trauma and subsequent addictions. “I’ve never been a half-measured person, and you can see that got me into a lot of trouble,” John said. (He’s been sober since 1990.)
The depiction of his life as a gay man has — to his dismay — led to the film’s censorship in Russia and Samoa. But, he said, “I didn’t want to leave any of the sex scenes out, because that’s very important — that’s why we went for an R film. It’s not ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’” also directed in part by Fletcher. “My life is not a PG life.”
At 72, John remains artistically engaged — in the midst of a farewell tour, and still composing for films and theater (the “Lion King” remake; a musical version of “The Devil Wears Prada”). He splits his time among multiple homes with Furnish and their sons, ages 8 and 6. The oldest is a soccer fiend, the youngest wants to be a singer: “He knows all the words to ‘Old Town Road’ — both remixes.”
In separate phone interviews — Taupin, 69, from his home in California, and John from a tour stop in Copenhagen — the pair discussed putting their lives on film. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.
Is the movie hard for you to sit through?
ELTON JOHN The first time I saw it was in January or February, a very rough copy, and that was when I got the most emotional, because I just didn’t know what to expect. It certainly had a huge impact on me, especially the family stuff and the Bernie stuff. It makes me happy and it makes me sad. I think the film eventually is about redemption, and how anyone can get redemption, if they try.
When did you first get wind of the project?
BERNIE TAUPIN I guess you have to go back at least five years, but as time and space are not real friends of mine, it’s a little hard to say. They sent me an initial script, and to be brutally honest, I wasn’t very happy with it. There were certain profanities that made me uncomfortable — I’m not somebody who uses profanity. They were very amenable to my suggestions. I wanted my character to align with reality as much as possible. I was slightly uncomfortable with the [nonchronological] order of songs. I wasn’t 100 percent sure of what they were actually doing. The word “fantasy” kept being brought up.
When did you get on board with their vision?
TAUPIN When I saw the end product.
Elton, you spent your early career hiding your identity and your demons. Was it cathartic in a way to dramatize it so openly?
JOHN Of course. Even though it’s hard to watch what you’re going through and what you did to yourself, I find it cathartic. I’ve always tried to be as honest as I can, since I got sober. I think there’s no point in sugarcoating anything — this is what happened, this is how I behaved, this is a real sad story of someone who was trying to get to grips with his past, but was extremely famous — onstage is where I felt at home, and offstage, I didn’t.
The film could’ve started with your self-invention as an artist. Why include the most painful parts of your childhood?
JOHN My childhood really shaped the way I became as an artist, because I was determined to prove myself to my father, that I could be successful and I could do it my way. It shaped me into the performer that I am. I didn’t need to prove anything to myself; I just wanted to prove something to him.
I grew up in a very, very hostile environment between my parents. Basically — I’ve had years to reflect on this — they should never have married each other. They were unsuited and had miserable times together, and as a result I suffered from it, because they argued about me. It was the ’50s — divorce was deemed to be scandalous, and so I was stuck in the middle of two very unhappy people. As I look back on it now, I don’t blame either of them. I mean, they both lived a loveless marriage, and the nice thing about it is, when they did remarry, they both had very happy marriages. And I’m very happy about that for them.
John Reid, Elton’s early manager and boyfriend, is portrayed (by Richard Madden) as a sly manipulator. Bernie, did you trust him from the beginning?
TAUPIN I had no reason not to. John was a smooth operator. I didn’t dislike him; I was never particularly close to him, but over the years I did acquire a certain revulsion for him in the way he acted with people. He was sort of the polar opposite of what I felt Elton needed. In the beginning, he may have done some things for Elton. Ultimately, the devil on your shoulder whispers in your ear and says, “You can have more if you want,” and I think that’s what happened. When your manager is living higher on the hog than you are, you know something’s rotten in Denmark. [In 1998, John sued Reid for allegedly stealing tens of millions from him; Reid later paid John several million pounds in a settlement.]
Has John Reid seen the movie?
JOHN I think John has. I don’t know what he thought of it. It’s pretty hard-hitting, but that’s what our relationship became.
You’ve grown close with Taron. Were you involved in the casting of Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor, who played you as a child and adolescent?
JOHN I was not involved in any of the casting whatsoever. Both young Reggies were brilliant — little Matthew looks like me as well. When I see Kit with the Elvis Presley hairdo, I think: yes, if only I could have had that! But I would never have been allowed to. When I first saw [a picture of] Elvis Presley, I thought he was from outer space. And he changed my life forever. I wanted a pair of Winklepicker shoes and I wanted drainpipe trousers. But unfortunately I didn’t get any of them.
Where are your costumes now?
JOHN They’re in a warehouse in London. Some of them I’ve sold or given to museums, but most are still in storage, including the Donald Duck outfit [worn in a 1980 performance in Central Park], in an archive.
Do you ever go there?
JOHN Absolutely not. [Laughs] I can’t think of anything worse — oh my God, oh no.
It’s very strange because I very rarely look back on my life, and of course I had to, to watch this movie. I look at it and I think, oh my God, what a life I had there, for 20 years — only 20 years of my life! — what an incredible joy ride, and what a near disaster it was. And now, I don’t have to do that anymore. I don’t have to live that life. And I survived it.
Do you think you can be a great artist without experiencing, or overcoming, early trauma?
TAUPIN I would’ve had to have done it to know. We both had tremendous trauma in our lives, to be quite honest. I can’t think of any real major artists that probably hasn’t. I had addictions of my own — I wasn’t any fairy-tale prince. Sadly some of us don’t come through it. Certainly Elton was extraordinarily lucky to nip it in the bud in the right time.
JOHN My career mushroomed so quickly, from 1973 onward — I made two albums a year, different singles, B-sides, I toured, I did radio. I was on a high, but it wasn’t a drug high; I was on adrenaline, and sooner or later you crash and burn, and unfortunately the drugs helped me crash and burn. You know, two days before I was at Dodger Stadium [in sold-out concerts in 1975], I was having my stomach pumped.
How did you keep going onstage, and into the studio, rising to the creative moments during your addiction?
JOHN That’s what kept me alive. During the hard times, I still kept myself busy. I didn’t shut myself away and just do drugs, which a lot of people do and they disappear for two or three years. You can say that, initially, music saved me — the most incredible part of my childhood was the music. And then when I came to the difficult part of my fame, the music still saved me, because I still worked, and I still made records. And if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.
Bernie, when Elton went to rehab in 1990, did you think it would stick?
TAUPIN I really did, because the thing about Elton is, it’s all or nothing, all the time. When he sets his mind to something, nothing can break that change. That scene in the film when I visit him [in rehab], and he’s mopping the floor, I remember how much he enjoyed doing his own laundry, mopping the floor, scrubbing the toilet. Once he was in that situation, he adhered to it 100 percent, he totally embraced it. That shows his character.
What kind of notes did you give to get the Elton-Bernie relationship right on screen?
JOHN I think the portrayal is pretty accurate. [After becoming successful] we lived our lives separately, and I think that’s what kept us together. Because he was the Brando cowboy and I was the guy who liked buying porcelain. The thing that really touched me in the film is that — God, I love him, and what a story, what a ridiculous story, of kismet, serendipity. Of all the envelopes [of lyricists’ work] to be given, I got his envelope. It’s very eerie and it’s wonderful, and the way we write songs is very eerie as well. We’re not in the same room. I don’t have a melody — I’m inspired by him. I never wanted to change that. And so I just look at it as a gift, from God or whatever.
TAUPIN I don’t need to try to figure out why it works. We never question that. We just continue.