In retrospect, it seems like nothing less than kismet that Dexter Fletcher, the director of Rocketman (now playing), would be drawn to musicals
“The first film I went to see in the cinema with my family was That’s Entertainment!, which was a mix of great old numbers from MGM musicals,” he says amiably by phone from Los Angeles. “They’re the first films I really remember enjoying. My dad was a huge film buff, and we loved watching Singin’ in the Rain together. There’s a lot of fun and joy in there.”
Later, as a child actor, Fletcher landed a key part in Alan Parker’s 1976 musical Bugsy Malone.
“Oh, I just loved it; it never gets old. The songs are brilliant, the structure is perfect, and I do suppose there’s some of it running through the DNA of Rocketman.”
Indeed, with Taron Egerton as singer-songwriter Elton John, Rocketman—like Bugsy Malone—is a sprawling and immensely enjoyable kaleidoscope of a film. It has extravagant musical fantasy numbers, a good helping of fun, and considerable supporting talent: Richard Madden as Elton’s manager and early love interest, John Reid; Bryce Dallas Howard as his distant mother; and Jamie Bell as songwriting partner Bernie Taupin.
“I, of course, took the ball and ran with it,” the London-born Fletcher says, chuckling. “The musical gives us something that opera does, in a way: it allows the characters to open their hearts and sing with no artifice or mask, and you get pure, raw emotion. It’s an incredible gift for storytelling.”
In addition to being raised on the genre, Fletcher has also helmed two previous musicals, 2013’s Sunshine on Leith and last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, for which he was tapped to replace director Bryan Singer after two-thirds of the film had already been shot.
Although there was some early pressure to sanitize Elton’s enthusiastic embrace of the Me Generation’s trifecta of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, Fletcher says that, as a director, he had free rein by the time filming began.
“I always made it clear that it was going to be an R-rated musical, and I never shied away from anything in Lee Hall’s script; it would have fundamentally affected what the film is,” he says, noting that the studio enthusiastically backed him up. “They were very generous and supportive; it was a big risk and a big leap for them to take.”
And while Fletcher portrays Elton warts and all, it’s clear that he has a great deal of affection for his subject, even as the singer plows through a mountain of cocaine and partakes of almost every temptation.
“I think we all understand the day-to-day rigours of feeling one thing but putting a mask on for the world,” Fletcher says, thoughtfully. “Elton was like an out-of-control child sometimes, but if you lift the lid on all that for the audience, his behaviour can be understandable. He wasn’t a nasty person, he was just a lonely kid who wanted love and was acting out. We all have the capability of doing that.”