Meet Adam Murray, the Choreographer Behind Rocketman's Mesmerizing Musical Numbers

June 5, 2019


is not your typical biopic. The film charts Elton John’s rise to fame and the construction of his beloved, audacious persona in the only way that could be appropriate for the subject: via a splashy, fantastical movie musical bursting with over-the-top production numbers. We chatted with Adam Murray, the British choreographer who worked with director Dexter Fletcher and star Taron Egerton, to find out how they made the magic happen. As Murray puts it, “It was like being in the best sweets shop ever, with all of these creative geniuses.”

How he got the gig

Though getting hired on to the Rocketman creative team was akin to “an old-fashioned interview” (he pitched Fletcher his ideas for three scenes from the film), Murray initially didn’t realize just how much he would get to contribute: “I went in thinking it was going to be a traditional biopic, and I was possibly going to have to work with an actor on emulating Elton John and do some movement direction, staging live shows. And then I sat down with the sides and read these elaborate, sort of fantastical scenes where these numbers came to life. I was like, ‘Oh my god! This is insane! It’s a musical!’ ”

Finding the balance between movie musical and biopic

“The root of Elton John is this character he created, and the movie tells the story of how that came about and why he turned himself into this character we all know and love as Elton John,” explains Murray. “But there’s this fantasy element that we use to embody what’s happening emotionally and dynamically at that point in the film.”

“We looked back at so much material, used movies like All That Jazz, and The Who’s Tommy, and they were real influences over where we could go with a biopic.” The key, Murray says, was “figuring out a way to take the heritage and knowledge we’ve learned from iconic movie musicals, and asking, How do we spin it? How do we tell our own story using those skills and that craft to take it to another level? While also making sure it’s grounded enough that story is at the heart of it, so you don’t ever feel like you’re in too much of musical-land that it’s not believable. At moments it feels like a rock opera, and other moments you feel like you’re watching a very grounded biopic. It really was quite a difficult balance.”

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Practice makes perfect

“During pre-production, which was relatively quick, something like eight or nine weeks before filming, we tried as much as we could to plan all the big sequences so we knew how it was going to be filmed before we got into the shooting process,” Murray says. “We were on such a tight schedule that we almost couldn’t afford to shoot anything we didn’t know would be successful, so we were very prepared. It was a matter of planning.”

And because they chose to shoot the musical numbers in continuous takes, “we all had to be on the same page with regards to the lighting, camera moves, costumes—everything had to be seamless, because the way we created it was the way it was going to be seen.”

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Why you won’t see an exact replica of any Elton John performances

Unlike last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody and it’s eerily accurate re-creation of Queen’s Live Aid performance, Rocketman isn’t interested in such exacting verisimilitude. “We didn’t want it to feel like a tribute act, or an impersonation,” Murray says. “It was a telling of his life and his story that was connected to who he is.” Egerton sang his own renditions of Elton John classics. The creative team tried to avoid getting caught up in their ideas of Elton John as we know him today, instead focusing on the script and, for Murray, “how and why he presents himself in certain ways, what’s gotten him there and his insecurities and the things he’s done to protect himself emotionally. All those layers are built into the movement.”

And as for the man himself? “Elton gave us the permission and the freedom to come at the story with our own viewpoint. He kept himself very separate,” says Murray, though John met with everyone at the start of the process and was very available to answer questions. “It was so interesting, I was reading something he said in an interview recently: that the last thing anybody would have wanted would have been for him to be hovering around and double-checking everybody’s creative choices. It must have been very hard for him to take a step back and say, I trust you guys, tell my life story. But that was always in the back of your mind: I’m honoring somebody that’s going to ultimately sit down at the end of this process and watch this back. We all wanted him to be proud of what we created.”

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Working with Taron Egerton

“Taron is a force of nature,” Murray laughs. “He had such a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve. He was so open, and so committed, and he brought with him a familiarity with this music and his own passion for singing.” But what was it like working with an actor who is very physical, but not necessarily a trained dancer?

“As it is working with so many actors on movement or dance, it’s finding a way of cheating the choreography into those moments so those guys don’t feel like they’re doing choreography. The minute anybody feels that they, as a non-dancer, have to dance, the worry is that they’re going to be disconnected, thinking about what their feet are doing. I just came about it from a musical point of view, going, Okay, what are you feeling here? What’s the idea? Where are you coming from? Where are you going to? Do you like what you’re seeing around you physically? Do you see anything that inspires you?

“The difficult thing for Taron was that the whole thing had to be shot in one take. He had key points that he knew where he needed to get from and where he needed to get to. There were certain moments where, when he sang that lyric, I wanted him to embody how he felt about that moment or that lyric, so he would absorb a physicality from the people around him.”

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Making the audience levitate

“When we shot the ‘Crocodile Rock’ sequence in the Troubadour, when the audience levitates, nobody knew if it was going to work or not. How do you get 120 people in a night club in the air? We tried out so many different solutions. It wasn’t a case of resorting straight to visual effects and going, Let’s throw money at that and put people in digitally with visual effects. It was like, How do we do this properly, how they would have done it in the 1940s with those MGM musicals? We had people on trampolines and on bicycle seats being suspended on wires through the air. It was madness, absolute madness. We didn’t know if it would ever truly work until we put it together.

What hit the cutting room floor

“The director’s cut is a three-and-a-half-hour movie, and it needs to come down to something that’s watchable. Sadly, with choreography in film, choreography still seems to be that one department that gets lost first. Ultimately, the story has to be told, so the scenes and the dialogue have to take precedent, and we’re there to elevate it.

“There was a sequence at the end of ‘Honky Cat’ that didn’t make the film that I absolutely loved doing. It was sort of a big MGM sequence on a big, gold, circular staircase. The dancers were all in unfinished top hats and tails, and we did this trippy tribute to a Busby Berkeley sequence. When it came to editing, you could see the struggle that everyone goes through: Is it important to the narrative at this moment, or is it just a visual feast? It’s just getting that balance right. Dex had such a hard job. I can’t even imagine what he went through trying to pick all the best bits.”

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

About working on that third Kingsman movie…

“I just did a little bit of work with Matthew Vaughn on his latest Kingsman movie. All I can say is it’s going to be amazing, the script is brilliant, it’s going to be great.” Murray laughs. “I’ll get shot if I say anything about that. Someone will hunt me down!”