By James Mottram

Often when filmmakers direct a biopic, the subject is no longer around. In the case of Rocketman, telling of the rise of singer-pianist Elton John, he was right there. Even at the world premiere in Cannes last week, when he sat with director Dexter Fletcher, actor Taron Egerton, who plays him, and his long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin. “We were looking at Bernie and Elton,” recalls Egerton. “And to see them every five minutes just grab each other’s knee, reminisce and be moved by this iteration of their story, [was wonderful].”

The Cannes Film Festival has been the ideal launchpad for Rocketman – and not just because it took place a week before it opens in the UK and other territories. The video for Elton John’s 1983 song I’m Still Standing – cleverly integrated into the film at one point – was shot in the French Riviera resort. Unsurprisingly, John returned to the famous Croisette, even entertaining crowds at the after-party with renditions of his songs. As Egerton put it, the film’s rapturous reception made “a 72 year-old rock star” very happy indeed.

Arriving just a few months after the monster hit Bohemian Rhapsody, telling of the rise of rock band Queen, it would be easy to think that Rocketman is cut from the same cloth. After all, Fletcher was drafted in to finish the Queen film after original director Bryan Singer was fired. “Our movie is a different animal,” says Egerton. For starters, he sings the songs (whereas Rami Malek, who won an Oscar playing Queen’s Freddie Mercury, was one of a number of voices singing the songs).

Rocketman takes a different approach than the rather more straightforward Bohemian Rhapsody: using John’s songs to tell his life story, there are moments when dancers break out into big choreographed numbers like an old Busby Berkeley musical. “It’s not your typical biopic,” says Egerton. “We don’t deal with the songs in a chronological order. There’s elements of fantasy. We take some licence with the truth.”

Indeed, when John plays a medley of songs to impress record label owner Dick James (Stephen Graham), who signed the artist back in 1967, including excerpts from I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues and Sad Songs (Say So Much) – both recorded much later – it’s easy to see what Egerton means. As Fletcher puts it, if the songs “fit right for the emotional and psychological moment of the film, we dive right in…the music doesn’t get in the way of the film. It is part of the whole.”

Really, Rocketman accounts for the inexorable rise of John from the “fat boy from Pinner”, as he dubs himself, to a multi-millionaire at 25. Scripted by Billy Elliot’s Lee Hall, it’s an unfettered account, says Fletcher, something John insisted upon. “He was very clear he didn’t want it to be self-serving. There’s no upside for him in that. He’s always been very clear and honest and open about who he is, and the film attempts to reflect that and be a part of that as well. That’s one of its great strengths – it’s not hidden.”

Biographical elements are touched on – notably, the troubled relationship with his parents (played by Steven Mackintosh, and Bryce Dallas Howard) when he was plain old Reginald Dwight. But really Fletcher’s film is more an inner journey, as the drink, drugs and fame take hold. Egerton notes they didn’t seek “to deify Elton or make him flawless or perfect. We wanted to tell a human story. Elton is an extraordinary human being but he’s still a human being. That’s why you see the troughs as well as the peaks.”

In particular, the film details John’s tumultuous relationship with John Reid, the Paisley-born music manager who not only marshalled John’s career but also that of Queen. Played by Scottish Bodyguard star Richard Madden, who looks particularly slick on screen, “It’s what I had to do,” shrugs Madden. “He has this charm and charisma and was famous for that. That was the script and that was the part.” Adds Fletcher, “In fairness to Richard…he doesn’t play the bad guy.”

Indeed, if there is a villain in the film, apart from cocaine and vodka, it’d be John’s own self-obsession and his vanity, back in the days when his ego was left unchecked. Nevertheless, the film does convey just how difficult it is to be catapulted from obscurity to celebrity. “He’s a global phenomenon and people feel a sense of ownership over Elton’s work,” says Egerton. “These songs, they highlight moments in our lives, which is why everyone feels such a personal investment in him and his life story.”

Unlike many music bios – The Doors, Bohemian Rhapsody – that end in tragedy, Rocketman is more upbeat. As well as being 28 years sober, John’s long-standing happy marriage to David Furnish – their Rocket Pictures was involved in the making of the film – and his tireless work with his HIV/Aids charity show that he did find contentment after his reckless pre-rehab days. Sometimes, it seems, sad songs do have a happy ending.

Rocketman opens on May 22nd.