Jamie Bell on Rocketman: 'I think Bernie was much more comfortable in his own skin. Elton had a harder time with that'
BAFTA-winning British actor discusses playing Bernie Taupin in Dexter Fletcher's dazzling Elton John bio
Dressed in black, Jamie Bell is sitting in London's Mandarin Oriental hotel pondering Elton John. He was just 11 when Princess Diana died and the flamboyant British singer re-released 'Candle in the Wind', originally his hymn to Marilyn Monroe. 'I had a karaoke machine as a kid and that was one of the songs on it,' he remembers. 'I was very moved by the lyrics.'
Lyrics, of course, that were penned by Bernie Taupin, the writer behind John's incredible success over the last 50 years. And it's Taupin that Bell plays in Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher's dazzling Elton John bio that's just been unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival and hits UK cinemas this week. Featuring Kingsman star Taron Egerton as John and Bodyguard's Richard Madden as manager John Reid, it's all set to be the next Bohemian Rhapsody.
Curiously, the film brings the 33-year-old Bell full circle. Rocketman is scripted by Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, the story of a ballet-dancing teen that launched Bell back in 2000. John, whose stomper 'I'm Still Standing' was almost used on the soundtrack, turned out to be a massive fan of the film. 'He said to me, "What you did as a kid in that movie has affected my entire life." I felt very flattered by it.'
Bell also spent time with Taupin, dining together in Santa Barbara before the shoot. Alongside Taupin's memoir A Cradle of Haloes: Sketches of a Childhood, it gave Bell a unique insight into one of showbiz's most remarkable partnerships. While the film covers the Taupin-John relationship, the actor is very clear on what Fletcher and Hall have achieved. 'This is not a Bernie Taupin biopic. It's very much an Elton John film.'
Set primarily in the 1970s, Rocketman deals frankly with the hedonistic drug-fuelled lifestyle – 'Elton going off the rails, really losing it' as Bell puts it – that could easily have felled the singer. Then there's John's sexuality. 'I think Bernie was much more comfortable in his own skin. Elton had a harder time with that.' Word had it that the studio wanted to cut a bedroom scene between Egerton and Madden, something Bell denies. 'I think Dexter dealt with that quite well.'
Anything but a straight biopic – fantasy-musical sequences abound – one moment even sees Bell break into 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' (he even took singing lessons, just to make sure when he recorded the song at Abbey Road that he sounded harmonious). 'At that point, we've gone into such a different realm that we're going, "The lyricist is now singing!" When does the lyricist ever get to be the one who exclaims in that way? Never.'
After recently playing a neo-Nazi in the upcoming Skin – typical of Bell's brave decision-making – it sounds like Rocketman was the perfect salve. 'It was very conscious – I'd like to go to work and have some fun now please! Just from a health point of view!' But he's not about to change down gears for good. 'I want to challenge myself,' he grins. 'I want to see how far I can push this thing.'
Rocketman opens in cinemas on Wed 22 May.