For the past 50 years, Bernie Taupin has served as the primary translator of Elton John’s memories, moods and fantasies. John’s longtime lyricist and musical partner captured his peak sassiness on “The Bitch Is Back,” his drug-fueled nadir on “Too Low For Zero” and his hard-won salvation on “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” He wrote the lyrics of two autobiographical albums (“Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” and “The Captain and the Kid”) that canonized the peaks and valleys of his and John’s lives in joyous, mythological detail.
Given his long-term creative and narrative authority, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Taupin initially chafed at Rocketman, a musical quasi-biopic that opens on Friday and takes a cavalier approach to the solid facts of John’s life. “I questioned the original script—I wasn’t happy with it,” Taupin said in an interview in Manhattan on Wednesday, a little less than two weeks after the film’s premiere at Cannes, and two days before its U.S. release.
But after suggesting minor changes, Taupin became content to relinquish writing duties to screenwriter Lee Hall and watch his life unfold in the hands of actor Jamie Bell. And Taupin ended up loving the movie when he saw it in Cannes, marveling at its dramatic anti-literalist flourishes in some parts and eerie hyper-accuracy in others.
“It’s extraordinary payback for a lot of hard work,” Taupin says. “Dexter [Fletcher, the film’s director] took it from something that could have been quite cliche and traditional to another plateau.”
Rocketman traces John’s life from his repressed upbringing in a strained Pinner household to his explosive popularity in the ‘70s to his stint in rehab in 1990. Taupin was alongside him almost every step of the way, writing the lyrics to classics like “Rocket Man” and “Tiny Dancer” and supporting him through times of crisis and addiction.
But the pair did not meet organically: In 1967, they both answered the same advertisement from Liberty Records seeking songwriters. John couldn’t write lyrics; Taupin couldn’t write melodies. But when John was handed an envelope of Taupin’s poems, he was moved by their lyricism and began cutting demos to them. The pair soon met and developed a close relationship that Taupin called a “non-sexual love affair.”
“When we started it out it was really just me and him,” Taupin said. They slept in bunk-beds in John’s mother’s flat and were often broke; Taupin would write lyrics in a back bedroom while John fit his words to melodies in front of an upright piano. “It was very much a sort of stream-of-consciousness,” Taupin said of his own lyrical style. “I would write whatever I felt, and he would jerry-rig it into a song.”
Many soon-to-be classics were written in that space. A scene from Rocketman shows Taupin handing John (played by Taron Egerton) some lyrics and then going upstairs to brush his teeth. By the time he has rinsed and returned, John has formed the indelible melody of “Your Song,” which would be the pair’s first breakout hit in the United States. “It’s pretty much how it happened,” Taupin said of the scene. “I did write the lyric to ‘Your Song’ over the breakfast table—and I remember there was a coffee mug stain on the lyric.” Taupin does point out a couple small discrepancies, including the fact that John’s mother and grandmother weren’t actually there, as well as the size of the apartment: “There wasn’t an upstairs. It was a one-level apartment, and very small, too.”
During the scriptwriting and filming process, Taupin says he suggested tweaks to factual details and personality traits, including his character’s use of profanity or certain turns of phrase. (“I’m not a guy that swears,” he says.) But he came to appreciate how the film’s fantastical nature strengthened its narrative thrust—and compared its bending of truths to his own songwriting tendencies. “Songs like ‘Tiny Dancer’ are not about just one person—it’s taking elements of different people and molding them into one character,” he said. “If we’d stretched it out it would have taken too much time—and you can’t always write songs that last 15 minutes.”
And while many details may be semi-factual, Taupin says that several scenes captured his life with a startling vividness. One of those depicts John coming to terms with his sexuality following a heart-to-heart with Taupin and John’s bandmate Long John Baldry; he then goes to break up with his girlfriend in a drunken haze in the middle of the night. “[Baldry] basically said to Elton that evening when we went out, ‘You have to understand: you’re gay. You’re ruining two lives here: your own and the person you’re going to get married to,’” Taupin recalled. “When I watched that, that was reliving it, totally. Because we were hammered and falling into garbage cans.”
As the movie progresses, Taupin and John grow increasingly distant, with John plunging into a Dionysian rockstar lifestyle and Taupin retreating out of the public eye. Taupin recalled one major dispute during this fraught era: “He knew that there were certain elements of his stage persona that I didn’t think were necessary,” he said. “There’s no secret that the reason he became that outlandish character is simply because it was rebelling against a childhood and a very domineering father who wouldn’t let him even wear Hush Puppies. I could definitely sympathize with that. I just thought there were times—wearing a Donald Duck suit in Central Park—where it sort of went over the top.”
Taupin is appreciative of the film’s nuanced portrayal of their complex relationship, in which they always emerged from disagreements with an ironclad understanding of their bond. “I think Jamie Bell definitely comes across as a very caring anchor, and that’s all I could ask for,” he said. “I’d like to think I’ve been someone who can’t be ruffled by the insanity of his career—and that I’ve always been there as the soft pillow to fall on in times of need.”
For now, the pair are reveling in this tribute, which has been well-received and premiered at Cannes to a prolonged standing ovation. When asked if he cried at the screening, Taupin responded: “Not as much as Elton. Elton wears his heart on his sleeve. I think everybody in the theater could hear him.”
A final album is being planned to coincide with John’s farewell tour, and Taupin says the pair will begin writing songs “the same way we did from day one.” Taupin will write lyrics and then hand them off to John—two individuals working separately to form one of the most storied collaborative duos in pop history.
“If we’ve weathered the storm now for over 50 years and have been able to maintain this extraordinary bond with each other,” Taupin said, “I don’t think there’s anything on god’s green earth that could separate us now.”
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