Why Elton John Turned Down Playing the Super Bowl but Said Yes to Dodger Stadium: ‘I Was Having the Best Time’

TheWrap magazine: The Disney+ stadium show also included “one of the greatest moments of my career” courtesy of a certain dancing music icon

Elton John Live - Farewell From Dodger Stadium
"Elton John Live: Farewell From Dodger Stadium" (Disney+)

A version of this story about “Elton John Live: Farewell From Dodger Stadium” first appeared in the variety/talk section of the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Elton John’s mammoth farewell tour has been going on for five years with COVID interruptions, but it hit a peak of sorts last November with three shows at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, his final American shows ever. The last of those became the first-ever livestream on Disney+, “Elton John Live: Farewell From Dodger Stadium.” The rock icon spoke about the show along with David Furnish, John’s partner and the executive producer of the special via Rocket Entertainment.  

Obviously, Elton, you have many decades of experience making a concert satisfying for the live audience. Does it change things when you have to consider a viewing audience as well?
Elton John: Well, I’ve never done this kind of thing before. I’ve done things in concert that have gone on TV, but this is global streaming, so it’s a completely different kettle of fish. It took a lot of planning, 10 weeks of planning. To be honest with you, I left everything to David and the Disney people who were organizing it. My job was to go on stage and do three nights at Dodger Stadium and enjoy it. I just had to ignore the cameras and do my best as normally as I do. And it was so easy. I didn’t notice the cameras, I noticed the audience. It was the culmination of all the American shows, and it was so much fun that I didn’t really notice anything. I mean, if I can’t do a show like that after having been playing since I was 17, then I shouldn’t be in the business.

David, 10 weeks doesn’t sound like a long preparation time for something of this scale.
David Furnish: It was an incredibly tight timeline. And it’s really down to the experience of the people that we worked with. I mean, we partnered first of all with Disney+ and with Fulwell productions, who have a terrific track record in live events. And then a wonderfully talented director like Paul Dugdale, who’s a master at how to capture the proper spirit of a live performance. We’re also blessed in that Elton’s crew has been with us for many, many years, and they’re the heroes backstage.

It wasn’t just the livestream, which was daunting in itself. We were shooting a companion documentary at the same time, which we’re going to be bringing out next year. And we also had three guest artists that Elton doesn’t normally have on the show. So there were a lot of moving parts in place.

John: We were very lucky with the weather. That was another factor. I mean, the one thing you can’t control is rain. If it rained, it would’ve been a different story. Not that much of a different story, but from an audience point of view, it was just wonderful that it was a lovely, lovely evening. And I have to say that what lifted me through the whole thing was the crowds dressing up, putting [on] the costumes and glasses and having a great time celebrating my whole career in one night. It was all of us having a great party. That was the whole intention when I started to do this tour, and it’s absolutely gotten better and better as it’s gone along. As it’s nearing the end, it’s become more emotional and more fun.

Was it important to both of you that it be live rather than recorded for broadcast later?
Furnish: It was really important because everything Elton does as a performer, and everything he does with his band, is always 100% live. There’s no click track with Elton’s band. We looked at the Super Bowl at one point, and the reason we decided to back away from it is that elements of the Super Bowl show, they don’t allow you to do live. They want certain instruments prerecorded, and then you play live alongside them. I always say I worry least about Elton when he is on stage. There’s nothing he hasn’t encountered in his 50-plus years as a performer that he hasn’t been able to handle and that his band hasn’t been able to maneuver around. So going 100% live just felt like the magical right thing to do. And it felt like more of an event, too. Doing a livestream to 150 million people felt like an opportunity too good to pass up.

Elton John at Dodger Stadium
Elton John at Dodger Stadium (Getty Images)

Elton, on stage that night, was there anything that didn’t go as you expected, that you found yourself adjusting for on the fly?
John: Not at all. All three guest artists — Kiki Dee, Brandi Carlile and Dua Lipa — were brilliant. We didn’t rehearse with them very long because they’re such professionals we didn’t need to rehearse with them very long. And the gods were with us that night with the weather and with nothing going wrong. I just had the best time. I don’t like to look at myself — the faces I pull when I’m singing, I think, oh, my God, stop that — but looking at this, it was clear that I was having the best time and the band were having a great time.

David, behind the scenes, were you guys having to adjust for anything? Or did it go smoothly for you, too?
Furnish: It went incredibly smoothly. We had two nights to plan and build up to it. So in terms of camera placements, we actually had a dolly on stage during the first night so that we could get a different angle on Elton that we couldn’t do during the livestream, but that we would be able to put into the program later on. But we had an opportunity to run through everything with the set list, albeit without the collaborators. It was a chance to work out the kinks and understand how to deliver the best, most exciting version that really captures the spirit of what was happening inside the venue and on stage. And as Elton said, the stars just aligned. We were very lucky. Nothing happened behind the scenes.

I’d love to give you a great story of [laughing] a drone falling from the sky or something happening like that. But again, it was meticulously planned in a tight timetable and it all came off according to plan. Which is boring to write about, but on the other hand, it speaks to the level of everybody that came together to work on the show.

John: As I looked over my shoulder toward the end of the show, I saw Joni Mitchell standing up and dancing. [Laughs] And that was probably one of the greatest moments of my career. What she’s been through and the fact that we’ve become friends and she was there dancing away — I thought, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Furnish: The other thing is, we’re very protective about our sons in terms of the exposure we give them in the media. We don’t want anything thrust upon them that puts pressure on them as they get older and they decide who they want to be and how they want to live their lives. But Elton sat down with them and had a conversation and said, “You know, you guys are the reason I’m coming off the road, and I want the audience to see how happy I am with you.” So he asked if they could come on the stage. They are not used to doing that, and I was really blown away at how they rose to the occasion. One son did a little bit more reassuring and explaining than the other, but by the time they got over the hump, and it only took about 30 seconds, but it sent a message around the world on a whole bunch of levels.

I think it showed what an incredibly happy place Elton and I and our family are in at this moment in time. I also think it sends a message to the world of unity and happy families in all shapes and sizes and configurations. There have been some upsetting things happening in the world in certain states in relation to LGBT rights and visibility in families and children and education, and nothing sends a message of positivity like a happy family just standing on a stage and saying, “Here we are.” Just the same as any other family, albeit a family that’s got some rock and roll in it and is celebrating a big moment in one of the parents’ life and in my life. That was very special.

I was worried I might have a little bit of, “I can’t go on, I’m scared.” They both took deep breaths and went on with big smiles. They were very relaxed and they did brilliantly.

Watching it from the audience on the first night, I didn’t see any signs of nerves.
John: Yeah. It’s quite an unusual thing, because when I’m home, I don’t bring Elton home at all. I’m just dad. And I think this was the icing on the cake for them. The wonderful thing about this livestream is that years from now, they’ll be able to look at it and say, “Oh, we were there. There’s my dad and there’s my papa, and we were there.” Isn’t it great to have a memento of that?

Read more from the Comedy Series issue here.

Comedy Series Cover, Selena Gomez
Photographed by Jeff Vespa