Set Decorator Judy [Jude] Farr SDSA International embraced the creative challenges the film and its subject offered, with Elton John’s encouragement to her and Production Designer Marcus Rowland to interpret his life story instead of attempting a direct reiteration!
She gives us notes on some of those literally fabulous sets...
“This location bedroom had 2 doors and 2 large windows, plain-color paint and a black mosaic floor. So to lift the room, we incorporated the screen as a bedhead and the glass & brass tables as night stands. The lights, although the wrong period, were great for the look....”
Again brass & glass, this time with the onyx-black glass contrasting with sparkling crystal and reflecting the tones of the zebra rug. The painting above the silvered console table was one of several contemporary pieces commissioned.
Re: the Versace-style, Farr points out, “We had the carpet printed and the curtains made from various replica fabrics, the period is wrong but as a homage to one of Elton’s friends and styles, it works within the film...”
The commissioned painting is directly referenced in the film and also appears in one of the musical fantasies.
Council of Industrial Design, Great Britain referred to the shop as having “An unquenchable enthusiasm for all things bright and in outrageously bad taste.” Elton commissioned several concert outfits from shop owner/designer Tommy Roberts for his 1970 American tour...
”Macramé, wood...lots of wood! Orange tree, plants and more plants, art and handcrafted pieces, vintage furnishings and appliances...even scattered leaves blowing in... We loved it all! It may not have been such a delight if it had been mid-winter!”
The night of Elton’s triumphant debut at the Troubadour... The celebration looses some of its free-spirited joy for him, when he finds himself alone. His friends are madly partying, even Bernie has happily hooked up with a lady...
Reggie has been playing at pubs and small clubs, but wants to do his own music. To do so he needs a lyricist and a publisher. After encouragement from an established Blues musician, he changes his name to Elton John, meets with Bernie Taupin, and a lifelong musical partnership is born...
Reggie’s home, Pinner, England... As his grandmother and mother look on, Elton/Reggie puts music to the lyrics Bernie has just handed him... ...Your Song...
Elton says, “It’s the most beautiful, romantic song. It touches people. That’s why you write songs, to touch people. You want to write songs that please you, but if they please other people...they will never die. It’s an extraordinary lyric from an 18-year-old poet. And it’s complicated. I wrote it in E-flat, and I wrote it very, very quickly as you see in ROCKETMAN. That really is how it happened. The writing was a magical moment in our life.”
Early days... Director Dexter Fletcher notes, “...Bernie is this really grounded anchor that just keeps hold of the rope that stops Elton from flying out into the atmosphere and getting completely lost...”
Ray Williams, Liberty Records office... Elton John says, “There are certain things that have happened in my life that I look back at and think they must have been divine intervention...”
In 1967, Liberty Records, London had placed an advertisement in the New Musical Express for music writers. Elton responded and was selected to meet Ray Williams, former press agent now head of the A&R department. Elton told Williams that he could write music but lyrics were difficult.
“...Ray Williams leans back and gets this unopened envelope from a stack of envelopes on his desk. It could have been anybody’s. But he gave it to me, to see if whatever lyrics were inside might work. I excitedly got on the train back to Pinner, opened the envelope and thought, ‘These are really good.’ It could have been any envelope, but it was Bernie’s.”
Elton continues... “It’s always fresh with Bernie because I never know what I'm going to get. It’s not that we talk about what kind of song we are going to write...So, when I get it, it’s always exciting. It’s always been the same, from the very first lyric. We write in that odd kind of way where he creates the scenario for the song, and I finish it off...”
Taron Egerton, who portrays Elton John in the film, points out, “We always felt we wanted to be irreverent and make sure the audience feels like it’s getting a glimpse into the life of a man who’s had a notoriously turbulent time... But it’s also so important to make the fans happy and make Elton likeable. This is a raw, human story, but it’s also a celebration of a truly great man and what we can learn from him...”
“Music was my friend in times of conflict, in times of anguish, and in times of complete happiness... Music was always there for me, has always been my turn-to buddy even in the darkest moments of depression and addiction. Even in those dark hours, music has been my friend. It’s brought me so much joy.” – Elton John
A late Saturday dress on one of the stages. Horace watches over one of Elton's pianos...
Photo courtesy of Jude Farr
“This movie is about when I started to become famous... It was an extraordinary and surreal time,and that’s how I wanted the film to be.”
It should come as no surprise that conventional movie making was never going to work for the telling of Elton John’s life story – it simply could not contain it.
Elton’s transformation from the shy, working-class piano prodigy Reginald Dwight into a global music superstar was as tempestuous, outrageous, and plain dangerous as it was inspirational and brave. No regular movie was ever going to do it justice. –Paramount Pictures
“The idea,” says Director Dexter Fletcher, “was to create something that would genuinely explode off the screen, a riotous joy-ride of imagination, celebration and drama.” He chose Production Designer Marcus Rowland and Set Decorator Judy [Jude] Farr SDSA International to literally set the scene(s)!
They toured Elton John’s Windsor house and met with him early on re: the look of the film, as he was not only the subject but also one of the producers, along with his husband David Furnish. Farr was impressed with the icon’s openness to their creativity, his preference that they not religiously re-create his environs, but “surprise” him with their interpretations. The fact that the film was not to be a straight-up bio, but a mix of chronological depictions and musical numbers that conveyed more emotions than geography meant the team could be true to both aspects of his life, and always true to his personal story.
The LA mansion portrays his life of excess and deep need. Actually filmed at an estate outside of London, Farr was able to convey the Hollywood glamor and emptiness of the moment, while giving a nod to John’s sense of humor and mischief, a delicious aspect she included throughout the film!
Her sense of whimsy and wide perspective has allowed her to build a network of what she refers to as “mad collectors” of vintage items. When you look at the scope of films and television she’s done, [Oscar and Emmy nominated]...from THE KING’S SPEECH and DOWNTON ABBEY to MY WEEK WITH MARILYN* and FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER to CONAN THE BARBARIAN and OUTLAW KING*, and ever so much more...you realize the variety of elements she has brought to the screen in all of this visual storytelling.
This story is told in vibrant song and sets, as described by Paramount Pictures studio:
“As the film follows Elton [Taron Egerton] from his English hometown of Pinner and along the Yellow Brick road of fame, addiction and heartbreak, we meet the mother he had a troubled relationship with [Bryce Dallas Howard], the grandmother [Gemma Jones] who tried to nurture his talent, his increasingly overbearing manager and onetime lover, John Reid [Richard Madden], and his legendary lyricist Bernie Taupin [Jamie Bell], the best friend and creative partner of over 50 years without whom John might not have survived."
As Elton, who gave the cast and crew of ROCKETMAN free reign to tell his story, says: My life has been pretty crazy. The lows were very low, the highs were very high. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much balance in between.”
Co-Producer Furnish knew from the beginning that John was interested in telling a fantasy version of his life, something that was larger than life, not as it happened exactly, but as the fantastical version of what might have taken place. “And that was our starting point for the film that we wanted to make.”
Thus, while Elton’s childhood home has that beiged-down vintage realism [and an opportunity to use truly vintage wallpaper and fabrics!]...and there is a sublime re-creation of Mama Cass’s Laurel Canyon house [filmed not in the Hollywood or Malibu area, but entirely built & furnished in the UK]...the fantastical is evident in the Versace-esque offices for John Reid [not period-correct, Farr will point out, but the director wished to do an homage to Elton’s friend] and totally realized in the Honkey Cat sets for increasingly over-the-top numbers John was compelled to create as his fame grew.
There are a huge number of sets, from the local pub to posh London eateries, a range of offices and homes, private jet plane to crowded dressing rooms, and, of course, the stage shows, from The Troubadour to Dodger Stadium!
See the photo gallery above...and then see the film again – your initial appreciation will increase ten-fold!
Not only do your favorite songs come alive, the sets will help make even the most flamboyant seem real...
* See articles on MY WEEK WITH MARILYN and OUTLAW KING in Film Decor