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Why Rocketman is Rated R, According to Director Dexter Fletcher
Because it’s a musical rather than a biopic, Rocketman freely plays with some of the details and the timeline of Elton John’s life. As director Dexter Fletcher told me, this movie was about exploring John’s “inner, emotional life.” But the details that Fletcher and John himself (who served as executive producer of the film) refused to omit from Rocketman were the aspects of the iconic singer’s life that give the film an R rating.
Before the film hit theaters, John wrote in the Guardian that “some studios wanted to tone down the sex and drugs so the film would get a PG-13 rating, but I just haven’t led a PG-13 rated life.”
As John explained: “Everyone knows I had quite a lot of both during the ’70s and ’80s, so there didn’t seem to be much point in making a movie that implied that after every gig, I’d quietly gone back to my hotel room with only a glass of warm milk and the Gideon’s Bible for company.”
So Rocketman does not shy away from the sex and drugs of John’s life. As director Dexter Fletcher tells me, they set out from the very beginning to make an R-rated musical. (Generally, the Motion Picture Association of America, which gives movies their ratings, considers a film R-rated when there’s sexually-oriented nudity and drug abuse, among other considerations.) “Like Elton said, his life has not been PG-13,” Fletcher says. “He can defend himself. He’s a big boy, and if you want, you know, to question him about the facts of his life and what he did and didn’t do, he’s here to defend himself. Other people are not, and so they are protected by people who loved them, or want to tell a different story.”
This subject matter in Rocketman includes John’s overdose and hospitalization.
Elton John with his manager John Reid, on their way to a luncheon in honour of Buddy Holly at the Orangery in Holland Park, London, 8th September 1976. The event marks what would have been Holly’s fortieth birthday.
“We had the strength and conviction of Elton, who said ‘yes, I was a bit of a shit, you know. I had some dark days in the wilderness,'” Fletcher says. “I’m not throwing him under the bus, revealing things about him that no one knows or that he’s never said. I’m just trying to find a way to depict him cinematically in a story that hopefully is compelling and exciting.”
Along with John’s heavy use of drugs and alcohol—and subsequent time in rehab—the film shows his tumultuous relationship with manager John Reid in full. This includes a sex scene between Taron Egerton, who plays John, and Richard Madden, who plays Reid.
Rocketman has drawn comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody, partly because Fletcher stepped in to finish directing the Queen biopic and because both movies are about FM radio icons. However, there’s no actual sex in Bohemian Rhapsody. There’s implied sex between a man and a woman, and men are shown kissing and flirting, but there’s no nudity or sex. While Rocketman doesn’t include frontal nudity, it does show two men engaged in sex. Where Bohemian Rhapsody was a sanitized version of Freddie Mercury’s life, Rocketman shows much of what John did in this era.
As Fletcher explains, the film’s writer, Lee Hall, worked closely with John to pen the script for Rocketman. “Then he came in the early stages of rehearsal, and then went to development with costumes and sets and design,” Fletcher says.
But then John let the filmmakers do their work.
“He was off on his world tour, and I think he understood, as we all did, that there had to be a point where he was going to be able to go, ‘You need to now go do what you’re going to do, because, what purpose does me sitting here, looking over your shoulders serve?'” Fletcher says. “We have to have ownership of it and that’s what he was very keen for us to do. It takes a brave man, of course, because for most of us it’s a parlor game to say, hey, who plays me in a movie about my life? That’s a flight of fantasy. It must be daunting for anyone, especially someone so public. But that’s part of the gift that he gives, you know.”
As Fletcher explains, John trusted the filmmakers and would watch early cuts and act as a resource when they needed him—including talking to Egerton about his role. John’s husband David Furnish also spent time on set to help out.
Fletcher asks: “Can you imagine if I were making a film about you, and you were there every day? Eventually we’d turn around to you and go, ‘You need to go away for a while,’ because you would possibly get obsessed about things that are too personal.”
The result is a high-gloss musical that doesn’t put a glossy sheen over John’s life.
Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.