On a midnight call to London, Rocketman’s costume designer, Julian Day, is playing the modest card. The lauded craftsman recalls the intimidating moment he met with the courtier of pop culture – a bespectacled Sir Elton John – to take him through the film’s wardrobe. Yes, the Dexter Fletcher-directed musical fantasy indeed explores the music statesman’s rise to richness – and the uncensored exploration of fame and the vices that numb its loneliness. Imagine then the pressure of having to present a living legend with a costume to represent the time in his life where he overdosed in a swimming pool. Or had huge parties with obscene amounts of cocaine. Or sat in an AA meeting. The mind boggles.
“I was nervous about meeting him”, admits Day, his English accent articulate and friendly. “He’s a huge hero of mine so I felt a bit stunned, in a way. I never thought I’d ever get the chance to design costumes for Sir Elton in a film. My aim from the very beginning was to make him very happy with [the costumes] he saw on screen and happy with how he looked. He was charming and graceful and I can only say that he noted on his Instagram that the costumes were ‘amazing’ so I guess I’ve done my job.”
“He captioned that word in capitals,” I interject. “You must remind all journalists of this detail.”
“He did,” replies Day, smiling. “Thank you.”
But those aforementioned great falls had to make a thump from great heights. And so, Day was also tasked with dressing Taron Egerton (who plays John) for the superstar’s first ever live show at the famous Troubadour in Los Angeles in 1970 and that iconic performance at Dodger Stadium where he stoically belted out a keening rendition of Tiny Dancer. “When they first started to film, we knew it was a fantasy musical rather than a straight up biopic,” explains Day, who also designed the costumes for the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. “We wanted to create our own film and make the costumes our own so I reimagined my own costumes. But the only one we didn’t really want to change was the Dodgers costume because it’s so iconic at the gig. What I wanted to do was put [my team’s] touch on it, so what I did was instead of using sequins, we used Swarovski crystals and it was the heaviest costume in the world. I think there’s 240,0000 crystals on it. It was a lot.”
“The Swarovski crystals are incredible,” he continued. “It sparkles, it really does sparkle. When [your readers] see the film, you will see it – and it’s exciting.”
One of the biggest challenges for Day though was designing such elaborate costumes – for one of the most flamboyant personalities in music history – on less than half the budget he was given for Bohemian Rhapsody. Day and his “incredible” team were given access to John’s archive in London so they could meticulously research the real thing and recreate key pieces. “We took out some of the garments on loan and they had to be heavily insured because they are priceless,” he says. “We’d have five items in the studio and thoroughly research it. It’s nice to have the real thing there, just for the details, really.”
Elaborate headpieces were called in from a town North of England called Blackpool “which is very synonymous with ballroom dancing”. This is also where the incredible orange wings were created, a sight you will see in the confronting first scenes of Rocketman. (Victoria’s Secret truly should be sourcing their 2019 show’s wings from Blackpool). The hats were made in London, the shoes in Italy and Canada and the innumerable pairs of glasses were made in three different countries.
But one outfit that shone brighter than the Swarovskis was the costume Day created for Egerton’s performance of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. “Dexter came to me and said, ‘We’re doing Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, can you think of an interesting costume?” and I immediately thought of The Wizard Of Oz,” says Day. “So you have the blue suit and ruby red slippers [for Dorothy], the fur coat [for the Lion], the silver shirt for the Tin Man and the cowboy hat for the Scarecrow.” It’s fascinating to see it come together.
The fabulously over-the-top stage wear was already difficult to wear. But throw a sweltering set in the mix and Egerton had his work cut out for him. From all accounts, however, the Kingsman actor assumed pop icon position for the entire 14-week shoot. “Taron was brilliant. He was incredible. He had a lot of difficult costumes to wear and the costumes were hot and heavy. We didn’t have any air-conditioning,” explains Day. “Every time Taron would come in, he would literally have to strip down to his underwear because it was so hot and the stuff we were putting on him was very thick lycra so he had to adapt to the heat. We had fans to cool him down and he was a real professional. He had about 75 costumes and fittings and he really got into the spirit of it all.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard a Rocketman crew member speak so highly of Egerton. Across town at number 3 Abbey Road (the famous studios adjacent to the even more famous zebra crossing that saw John, Paul, George and Ringo stride across in 1969) is two-time Grammy award-winning music producer Giles Martin who also is the musical director on Rocketman. His late father, Sir George Martin, was the most successful record producer of all time and was known as the “fifth Beatle” – the one who would gently temper the band’s experimental sound.
But when the senior Martin began to lose his hearing, his son stepped in as his ears. If George was the architect of the Beatles sound, then Martin was its archivist. It became Martin’s job – a passing of the baton if you will – to mull over every instrument, every voice, every conversation and every take before he’d make judgement calls to the Beatles’ music. Any change could feel too drastic to a Beatles-lover – or on the flip-side, too anachronistic to the modern music lover. It’s a certain type of pressure Martin has gotten used to. The same was said about John’s music in Rocketman.
“Peeling back a classic is quite exciting actually. There’s only 12 notes and there’s words and that’s songs for you,” explains Martin. “With a track like Your Song, we see Taron playing Elton in his mum’s living room, writing the song. Elton John worked in a really peculiar way where he would get the lyrics from [longtime friend and songwriter] Bernie Taupin and write the song on the spot – and that’s how he still works.
“Myself and Taron got together a-year-and-a-half ago on this project. I sat and did some piano notes and Taron sort of acted as though he was writing the song. We recorded that and actually played that to Elton and he said ‘I’d write it much quicker than that!’” (Martin and his dad also worked with John in 1997 when the singer rushed to record he and Taupin’s re-written version of Candle In The Wind the morning of Princess Diana’s funeral.)
As Martin is telling me all these little nuggets of gold, Egerton calls his mobile. “Oh, Taron’s calling,” Martin says with a laugh. “It’s funny, Taron’s stylist rang me today saying ‘I hear you might need help with styling [for the Rocketman premiere in Cannes]?’ and I said “Who told you that? It’s that bastard, it’s that little Welsh bastard. I do have some suits, but apparently I will be sorted out.”
Martin was sartorially “sorted out” for the premiere.
So was Day. So was Dexter. And Taron. And Elton. All friends, they made a stellar, talented line-up of suits. And the film moved the latter to tears behind those famous spectacles.
The film is AMAZING. In capitals.
Rocketman is in Australian cinemas now.