Updated: Dec 21, 2021
Of all the excesses available to a rock star, Elton John has dived head first into them all and come through the other side; now the subject of Rocketman (2019), notably 'based on a true fantasy' as evidenced by the striking posters. I have always thought that Elton John's autobiography would be a fascinating read such is his publicly larger-than-life persona. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rocketman presents a dark melancholy beneath the glitz and sparkle.
Taron Egerton is revealing himself to be a very gifted and versatile actor. Already having embodied the fearless and charmingly down to earth (quite literally) Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards in director Dexter Fletcher’s winner Eddie the Eagle (2015), here Egerton reunites with Fletcher to portray the enigma of singer, songwriter and superstar Elton ‘Hercules’ John, to heart-breaking effect. True to form for what is essentially a jukebox musical, Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin's songs – big hitters and obscure gems alike – are used throughout to punctuate key events in John’s life, as he recounts his life through a sharing session at rehab; from growing up in Pinner as only child Reginald Dwight, with a talent for picking out melodies on the piano after hearing them only once, through to hedonistic 'Elton John', too far gone along the yellow brick road and in need of rehab.
Rocketman presents a dark melancholy beneath the glitz and sparkle.
With the backdrop of a distant father and distracted mother on the verge of a breakup (a poignant rendition of 'I Want Love' fittingly accentuates this point), only his grandmother (Gemma Jones) takes an interest in his burgeoning musical talent, accompanying him to his first day of study at the Royal Academy of Music. From there, we follow him through the rock and roll years, sporting an Elvis haircut ("make the most of it while it lasts," advises his mother, "you'll be as bald as an egg by the time you're twenty"), and into the pubs and clubs where his first band Bluesology accompany evenings where Saturday night's definitely alright for fighting. John's fortunes improve, both personally and financially, upon meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin, in a charmingly understated scene in a cafe where the two songwriters bond over a love of the song 'Streets of Laredo' by Marty Robbins. Jamie Bell portrays Taupin as a very likeable, honest and compassionate voice of reason. He loves Elton (though "not in that way") and, no matter how far Elton is drawn further and further into dangerous waters, Taupin remains a steady hand.
Director Dexter Fletcher is no slouch in bringing cinematic weight to the life of rock stars, having been drafted in to complete mega-hit Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) in its final weeks of production. With Bohemian Rhapsody still very much visible in the rear-view mirror it is, at first, easy to try and find comparisons. After all, there are several common threads that link the two narratives, not just behind the camera, but also in some of the players on screen. Manager John Reid played a key part in propelling both Queen and Elton John to superstardom, but in Rocketman – as portrayed by a bewigged Richard Madden – Reid is a selfish manipulator, very much mixing business with pleasure. There is also a correlation between the similar struggles Elton John and Freddie Mercury faced on their respective roads to fame and fortune and everything that goes with it: both somewhat shy and misunderstood outsiders, yet singular talents ready to take on the world.
Where the film threatens to become bogged down in its lead character's despair, it is pulled free by the sheer verve displayed in the inventive musical sequences.
Whatever the obvious and inevitable comparisons made, Rocketman is an altogether different beast; not so much a foot-stomping crowd-pleaser as a frank and fantastical cautionary tale in the guise of a more conventional rip-roaring musical. It is perhaps no coincidence that Taron Egerton’s version of Elton John's cover of The Who's 'Pinball Wizard' from Ken Russell's film adaptation of the rock opera Tommy (1975) (are you keeping up?) accompanies swirling images of John's many multi-coloured costumes and muti-faceted on-stage personas, evoking the aesthetic of that very film. As does the portrayal of John's well-documented suicide attempt in 1975 (a mere two days before his famous Dodgers Stadium gig), which transports John (and the audience) directly from ambulance stretcher to adoring audience via a haunting, yet tasteful balletic music and dance sequence.
It is a broken and lost John we meet at the beginning of Rocketman, dressed head-to-toe in a horned orange demon outfit, and addicted to everything. Egerton captures John's morose yet defiant characteristics of his life at that time, notably often in close-up. Coming out to his mother over the phone, for example; or sat in front of a mirror, adorned with a set of famously ostentatious glasses, switching on 'the performer' amidst emotional turmoil, a moment which reminded me of a similar scene in I, Tonya (2017). On occasions where the film threatens to become bogged down in its lead character's despair, it is pulled free by the sheer verve displayed in the inventive musical sequences (such as the Elton/Reid duet of 'Honky Cat', extolling the virtues of fame and fortune, and later, a shot-for-shot recreation of the music video for really the only appropriate song that could conclude the film) and the uniformly excellent performances. Notable among them is a brilliant turn from a barely recognisable Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton's abrasive mother, Sheila and an equally barely recognisable Stephen Graham having a whale of a time as profane, cigar smoking music publisher Dick James who, to paraphrase the comedian Lee Mack is 'so Cockney it hurts'. It must also be said that Egerton recreates John's vocal performances with an engagingly raw gusto. He sounds like what would happen if you merged Jamie Cullum and Robbie Williams. (I mean this as a compliment).
Elton John, the 'rocket man', burned up his fuse for a long, long time, but he lives to tell the tale.
Rocketman is a testament to the enduring professional and personal bond between an iconic songwriting duo and a reminder of some brilliant songs. Elton John, the 'rocket man', burned up his fuse for a long, long time, but he lives to tell the tale. At the unapologetic risk of finishing on a slightly hackneyed note, he's still standing.