Cannes Diary: Inside Elton John's Triumphant Return to the Croisette

Elton John, Taron Egerton Cannes film festival duet - H 2019
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The music icon made a statement with a heartfelt, stripped down version of 'I'm Still Standing,' before inviting 'Rocketman' star Taron Egerton onstage for a spirited duet of the film's titular song: "This has been a very emotional night for me."

As Elton John waited to take the stage Thursday night in Cannes, he quietly asked the security guard beside him to locate his husband, producer David Furnish. “It’s like that first night at the Troubadour, Elton!” someone shouted, from among the throngs gathered around the pop star in the V.I.P. area of the Rocketman party on the beach in front of the Carlton Hotel.

For all the thousands of performances the singer has delivered since he started playing piano in bands as a teenager in England, tonight’s would be unique. John had just watched Rocketman, the Paramount musical about his roller coaster ride with addiction in a gala screening inside the Palais' Grand Theatre Lumiere. After a thunderous standing ovation that left John and the film’s star, Taron Egerton, weeping in their seats, the 72-year-old singer was now collecting himself in the exact spot where he had shot his 1983 video for "I'm Still Standing," during a period in his career when alcohol and cocaine use blurred his recollections.

As the lights from yachts on the Riviera twinkled behind the stage, caterers offered heaping plates of seafood and magnums of champagne and Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher and Paramount CEO Jim Gianopulos watched expectantly from the sidelines, John took a deep breath and then stepped up a ramp to his Yamaha grand piano.

“This has been a very emotional night for me,” John said, addressing a crowd of several hundred gathered on the beach. “Even if the movie doesn’t make one penny at the box office, which will kill Jim Gianopulos, it is the movie that I wanted to make.”

Rocketman follows the outsized, $900 million box office success of another '70s rock biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, which Fletcher also partly directed, serving as a replacement for fired director Bryan Singer. But the movies are wildly different, and in ways that were crucially important to John.

R-rated where Bohemian Rhapsody is PG-13, Rocketman includes a passionate love scene between Egerton as John and Richard Madden as John’s onetime manager John Reid, as well as an orgy, a blowjob and cocaine use. Egerton and the rest of the cast sing John’s songs live and often to camera, as in a musical in the spirit of Grease or All That Jazz, while Bohemian Rhapsody’s actors lip-synced Queen’s songs in performance scenes.

Perhaps most significantly, the films differ in tone — where Bohemian Rhapsody charted Queen’s rise as a band and dealt only briefly with frontman Freddie Mercury’s sexuality, Rocketman tells a twistier yarn framed by John entering a 12-step program, showcasing his unhappy youthful yearning for love, defining creative partnership with songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), awakening sexuality, descent into a drug-fueled narcissism and ultimately his journey to a sober life.

Rocketman had a tortured, nearly two-decade road to the screen, with multiple studios, directors and actors attached over the years, including at one point Justin Timberlake and Tom Hardy in Egerton’s role, before producer Matthew Vaughn set up the current iteration at his Marv Films production house. In the crowd on the beach Thursday night were two unlikely financiers who had come aboard the film 18 months ago when Rocketman was set up at Paramount but its $41 million budget needed bolstering: brothers Italo (28) and Tommaso (24) Marzotto of the Italian textile family that has backed Valentino and Hugo Boss. Tommaso has made short films and participated in independent European productions, but for him and his brother, who have also put money into F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black: International, due from Sony in June, Rocketman marks a hopeful entry into the world of Hollywood studio filmmaking.

The night before the premiere, the brothers had a coming-out party of sorts at a dinner at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc thrown by David Unger of Artist International Group and the champagne brand Armand de Brignac. As composer and concert pianist ELEW played a rousing medley of John’s songs, and guests like German photographer Ellen Von Unwerth, Swiss art auctioneer Simon de Pury and Hong Kong singer and actress Josie Ho mingled, Italo and Tommaso danced and fielded congratulations, greeting women with a chivalrous, near hand-kiss. “We did not have any creative role on the film,” Tommaso said. “But we are so happy to be a part of it.”

During the screening of Rocketman in the Lumiere, the audience broke into spontaneous applause twice, once during “Your Song,” in a sequence that tracks the most crucial relationship in the film, John’s with Taupin, and later during “I’m Still Standing,” which uses footage from the 1983, Cannes-set music video that became an MTV staple (a scene with an opulent Chopard watch also got an emphatic reaction from the tiny cluster of the crowd who works for Chopard, which sponsors many events at the festival).

For John’s first song on stage on the beach Thursday night, he returned to his anthem of his longevity, “I’m Still Standing,” before bringing Egerton onto the stage for “Rocket Man.” Egerton, a newcomer to such a high stakes live singing gig, began tentatively, as John pounded the piano and looked at the actor encouragingly, ultimately joining him in a duet. When they stepped off the stage, Furnish was waiting for John, and the couple disappeared together into the crowd.