Current Issue #488

Film Review: Rocketman

Film Review: Rocketman

Hot on the heels of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody comes this fairly fabulous study of the life of Elton John, in all his frequently less-than-glamourous glory.

Directed by Dexter Fletcher (polished off Rhapsody after its original director Brian Singer was sacked), this was discussed for years by Elton and others and might have possibly featured James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Justin Timberlake (Elton’s longtime fave) or even Tom Cruise, but it was finally made with Kingsman star Taron Egerton in the unleashed lead role.

It must be said that Taron is thinner and better-looking than Elton ever was (sorry!), but he sings all his own songs and he can actually act, so he damn well IS Elton John anyway.

Offering an inspired framing narrative trick where Elton comes offstage in full Devil get-up and strides straight into an AA meeting, we watch as he’s encouraged to discuss his infamous addictions and myriad personal problems. His young self (Matthew Illesley), back when he was Reggie Dwight, appears to usher him into a flashback where a crowd of neighbours in Pinner, Middlesex, perform (what else?) The Bitch Is Back, and we realise that this is going to be a fully-fledged musical, not just a movie about music (like Rhapsody).

His parents are a nasty pair, with Mum Sheila (American Bryce Dallas Howard) and Dad Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) not at all your normal biopic types, who’ll tend to be mean at first but come good at the end, and they both remain cold and cruel throughout. Only kindly Granny Ivy (Gemma Jones) supports his obvious musical gifts and pushes him to take a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, where he wows his teachers but then gets seduced by rock and roll and changes his name to Elton John. And note that screenwriter Lee Hall gets the origin of that name completely wrong – but anyway.

Unreliable and anachronistic dream and fantasy sequences abound: Reggie conducts an imaginary orchestra in a version of the titular tune from his bed and, later, hits the piano at the pub to perform Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting years before it was written, and leaps off into a huge song-and-dance number with dozens of extras hoofing in background. He also luckily meets Bernie Taupin (Jamie ‘Billy Elliot’ Bell), who becomes his lyricist and lifelong friend, although he doesn’t love him “like that”.

Elton does love his manager John Reid (Richard Madden) like that though, and while they’re lovers during their early years together in the ‘70s (and yes, we actually see them in bed together in a scene that might or might not have been trimmed for some audiences), they’re soon famously at each other’s throats, as Elton’s alcoholism, substance abuse, self-loathing and flair for bitchy drama keep getting the better of him.

And the songs just keep on coming: a little of what became Daniel and Candle In The Wind while experimenting on a piano; improvising Your Song one morning while clad in dressing-gown and Y-fronts; Crocodile Rock at the Troubadour in LA as everyone magically levitates; Don’t Go Breaking My Heart during a recreation of that kitschy old film clip; and even Pinball Wizard, which is actually a Who tune that Elton performed in Ken Russell’s Tommy. Furthermore, Tiny Dancer is memorably reinvented as an ode to loneliness and alienation, while Goodbye Yellow Brick Road becomes a tale of anger, fear and desperation as Elton hits rock bottom.

All in all, this is quite a different beast when compared to Rhapsody, and not least because there’s just a little more scope permitted for moderate depictions of EJ’s considerable sexual appetites. So, somehow, while this is a far less realistic and straightforward story than Rhapsody, what with its surrealistic trimmings and druggy craziness, it’s also, nevertheless, actually far more truthful.

And has it been censored ever-so-slightly to gain a commercially-friendly M Rating here? Well, it’s possible, and I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind, that I put that down in words.

Rocketman (M) is in cinemas now

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