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‘Rocketman’ Producer Matthew Vaughn On His Elton John Biopic And His Big Issue With ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

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It’s easy to see where some of the angst Matthew Vaughn (the director of two Kingsman movies and X-Men: First Class) has for Bohemian Rhapsody comes from. When he set out to get Elton John’s story told with Rocketman, the idea of an R-rated fantastical musical and biopic about one of the most famous musicians in the world was unique. And, as Vaughn explains, the idea of the lead actor lip-syncing would be absurd. No one would buy that. But then along comes Bohemian Rhapsody and now Rami Malek has an Oscar.

So now Rocketman opens up, somehow, a bit in that movies’s shadow, and the director of Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher, was the person who replaced Bryan Singer in the later stages of Bohemian Rhapsody‘s production. So there’s always going to be this strange relationship between these two films. But here’s Vaughn, who was so meticulous about getting everything just right, including the fact Taron Egerton is actually singing, playing defense against a movie that just decided to lip-sync. So, yeah, he seems a bit frustrated. (Vaughn also very much dislikes how Bohemian Rhapsody changed the timeline of when Freddie Mercury got sick so it could be used as a plot device, which he explains ahead.)

But none of that changes what Rocketman is: the word “fantastical” is thrown around a lot, but it really is the best word to describe the proceedings. And Rocketman avoids the trappings of blatantly getting facts wrong by steering the other direction into the surreal. But there was one scene not in the original script that Vaughn wanted in the movie … Elton John’s fairly shocking 1984 marriage to a woman named Renate Blauel. Ahead, Vaughn explains why this scene was so necessary to make Rocketman work.

So, Rocketman

Me and my movies with “man” in the title.

Well, technically it’s X-Men: First Class, not “man.”

Well, Kingsman, Rocketman

No man in Layer Cake.

Not in the title. It should have been called Kick-Ass Man.

So I’ve been wondering this for months, what is the relationship between Taron Edgerton playing Elton John and Elton John being in Kingsman 2 with Taron.

We were shooting a scene that didn’t make the final cut, of him doing a duet with Julianne Moore singing “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” one of the most surreal moments. Probably one of the greatest moments, sitting on a piano for 12 hours next to Elton, and he played it again and again and again. And then we did a duet for a little second and I was like “I’ve died and gone to heaven, trying to play piano with Sir Elton.”

But I asked him “What happened to Rocketman? I read about it four years earlier, I’m a fan. I can’t wait to see it.” And he said, “Look, R-rated film, nobody really wanted to see it. When it came down to writing a check, no one wanted to do it.” And I got my car – they sent the script to me, and I never read scripts from phones but in the back of the car – and it just washed over me. I said, “Look, I’m in. 100 percent. I’m backing it, we’re going to be filming within six to eight months.”

So why didn’t you wind up directing it?

I wasn’t available to direct, kicking myself now, I have to say, but anyway. Do you know what? You can’t do everything in life. I wish I could have. I mean, I watched it and I’m sort of proud and jealous at the same time.

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When I think of you doing a musical of sorts I think of the final fight in the first Kingsman set to KC’s “Give it Up.”

Baby Give It Up!

Which I don’t think is KC and the Sunshine Band, I think it’s just KC?

No, it’s KC and the Sunshine Band.

I think he’s credited solo? [Note: In the U.S. he was credited as just KC, in some other countries it was KC and the Sunshine Band.]

I think he’d gone pretty mad at that point.

I love that song.

When I put it on, my editor’s like, “What the fuck are you doing right now?”

Have you seen the video? It’s kind of crazy.

Yeah! But as I said, I think he was really … going through a stage of his life, I’ll just say. Anyway, Tom Hardy was attached. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but I was like I think he’s too old because he’s going to be 40 playing a kid, and I think the audiences aren’t going to accept that. But I was totally convinced, and I was wrong, that nobody would buy a ticket for a movie where somebody lip-syncing to a rock legend.

And here we are.

Cut to Bohemian Rhapsody, $900 million…

To be fair a lot of people thought that at the time.

Anyway, I was wrong, but I still think singing in a musical is quite an important part of it. I think it’s what gives it the narrative, and the emotional structure that a musical needs.

Do you worry about people who don’t pay attention seeing Bohemian Rhapsody and thinking, “Man, he sounds just like Freddie Mercury!” And they see this, where Taron is actually singing, but the normal person might go, “He’s no Rami Malek!” And not realize what’s going on.

I spoke to someone, a music legend, and we got into a real argument. He’s like “Jesus, Rami sang it.” And I’m like, “He didn’t sing it.” And he’s like “You’re wrong, I’m in the music business, I know he was singing.” And I’m like, “I’m in the movie business, and I know he wasn’t!” But hey, they were successful, he got a fucking Oscar.

I was surprised Rocketman covered Elton’s 1984 marriage to Renate Blauel.

Yeah, that was put in. It actually wasn’t in the original screenplay. It’s funny you picked up on that. I asked for it to go in.

I think it’s a thing Elton John fans are very aware of, and if it’s not in there they might cry foul.

Well, for me, actually weirdly, I think the whole movie is about Elton wanting love, wanting to be loved properly. He did everything he could to try and find love, whether it was a dysfunctional relationship with his family, his lovers, his manager, then becoming an alcoholic, becoming a bulimic, becoming a drug addict, becoming a shopping addict, becoming angry, all the problems. But it all resolved to one thing. I was thinking about it and I said, “So why did you get married?” He said, “I had tried everything and what I hadn’t tried was marrying a woman.” He met Renate and he said Renate was the sweetest, loveliest women, so he thought, “I’ll try it. Maybe this will solve the hole.” And it didn’t.

Just as a companion?

No, he went full, “I’m going to get married. I’m going to go straight.” He thought, “Maybe that’s why I’m not happy.” He said the good news is it made him realize that it was a mistake. He’s gay and that’s that. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was self-respect and learning. That’s why he wrote that song in the end, you know, “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.” This movie is: How can anybody love you if you don’t love yourself?

A colleague of mine thought that part was made up. He was shocked to learn it was true.

I was so shocked as a kid. I must have been about, I don’t know what year he got married…

It was 1984 I think. I was a little kid. I remember watching Entertainment Tonight with my mom and she seemed shocked about it, but I thought it was just another rock star she had a crush on and was sad he was off the market. Now, in retrospect, I’m like, “Oh, I know what she meant.”

I remember watching it, again the wedding, it was Australia. My mother did the same thing. He was so beloved in England and accepted for being gay. It wasn’t a secret. He was open about it, and so when he got married to a woman it was sort of more shocking than anything else he’d done. You were like, “Have I missed something here?” And it weirdly was his ultimate cry for help.

There was really no way to avoid the comparisons, but I feel like your movie is being compared positively towards some of the stuff in Bohemian Rhapsody. What’s your opinion on biopics getting the facts right? Rocketman avoids this by being fantastical, because Elton John never transformed into a rocket then blew up like a firework…

He might have.

He might have, yeah. But Bohemian Rhapsody is presented as more a matter of fact and there’s so much stuff that’s out of place. The timeline is all messed up in that.

And that was wrong. They took some big liberties in Bohemian Rhapsody. I mean, the biggest one they took, which I had a problem with, was the whole device of him telling the band, “I’ve got AIDS,” before Live Aid.

Right. Live Aid had nothing to do with that.

I was at Live Aid, my first concert. Yeah, first ever concert.

I feel like that was dirty pool.

Yeah! I just thought we’re taking a very horrendous time period…

To make a plot device.

Yeah. And I didn’t approve. I remember I actually got in trouble for saying that, but fuck it. That’s how I feel. But I’ve always called this movie a true fantasy. I said this is a true fantasy, because what’s amazing is that a lot of stuff that people think – as you just said your friend with the wedding was actually true – and some of the stuff that people think that must be true, was fantasy. But if you look at the movie, Elton’s life is a fairy tale. I mean, there are some scenes that we couldn’t get in where I was going, “Did this really happen?” Elton’s like, “Yeah, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” He’s got his autobiography coming out. Apparently, it’s coming out in November or October, I think. Apparently, there’s stuff in there that makes your jaw hit the ground.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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