This musical odyssey through the early life of Elton John is so exhilarating, your feet just won't keep still.
After the commercial and award-winning (?) success of Bohemian Rhapsody, along comes another film that is directed by Bryan Singer’s replacement, Dexter Fletcher, and features another British music gay icon in the shape of Sir Elton John. Thankfully, that’s where the similarities end and the differences begin. Unlike the undeniable disappointment that slowly settled in after walking out of the Queen biopic, Rocketman is the complete opposite: a fantasy-musical full of high-octane energy and vibrancy that manages to achieve a tough task in balancing celebration and contemplation of one of pop music’s greatest artists.
Told in a frame narrative that opens at an alcoholic anonymous meeting, we see Elton John (Taron Egerton) striding into the ongoing session donning one of his many eye-catching stage costumes as a grandiose orchestral version of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road‘ crescendos in the background. Deciding that he wants to confess all of his mistakes and problems, we flashback to post-war Britain via a rip-roaring musical number (‘Bitch is Back’) where young Reginald Dwight starts to discover his talents as a pianist against the backdrop of his parents’ decaying marriage. Eventually, he enrolls at the Royal Academy of Music and from there, the film’s narrative weaves through the early rise of Elton’s career and then the slow decline of his mental health as alcohol and drugs engulf him.
The frame device is a very smart move by screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott, War Horse) because it wipes out the structural problem which weighed down Bohemian Rhapsody and led to many fans nitpicking at the chronology of events. Instead, the narrative is told as though it were a fairytale which allows for songs to be used as a device to move the story forward without having the need to lean towards historical accuracy. ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’, for instance, was released in 1973, but is used to transition Dwight’s younger self from the late 50s into his early 60s adolescence that starts as a bar fight before transforming into a dance extravaganza within a fairground. It has the reminiscence of a jukebox musical as though songs are being put on shuffle, but the fantastical nature of seeing teen Reggie (Kit Connor) disappearing before Taron Egerton struts into view is so exhilarating it’s like being grabbed by the hand and swept along this epic odyssey without a moment to spare.
With this imaginative approach comes the pressure for the film to be style but forgetting substance. Luckily it steers away from this issue by grounding Elton’s life on a personal level, particularly his relationship with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) who would co-write the majority of his work for the rest of his career. During the film’s second half as Elton becomes more distant and spiralling into a never-ending cycle of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, Taupin is the humanity in which the audience latches onto and sees him for who he truly is; a dinner table scene involving Elton and Bernie captured this in an eloquent and tear-jerking manner.
In relation to performances, Egerton is the perfect casting choice as Elton John and even though he stars in the Kingsman franchise, this should be the spring-board for future starring leads. In similarity to Rami Malek’s portrayal of Freddie Mercury, he embodies the role without question, getting the mannerisms and the appearance spot on. However, he surprisingly has an exceptional singing voice that’s uncanny to the soulful sparky vocals of Elton’s early albums, and the sequence when he sits at the piano and begins to form the recognisable melody of ‘Your Song’ is throughly satisfying for any Elton John fan. It’s very clear that he’s having the time of his life in this movie, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is Oscar talk surrounding him during awards seasons.
In addition to a note-worthy lead performance, Jamie Bell provides some much needed warmth as Bernie Taupin, and Stephen Graham chews the scenery as music publisher Dick James. However, a significant part of the film involves the twisted relationship between Elton and his manager John Reid, played brilliantly with a mixture of caring and nastiness by Richard Madden. It’s here where some of the film’s darker passages resides as Elton begins to question his sexuality, and it’s fulfilling and liberating that Fletcher doesn’t ignore this crucial aspect of Elton’s life. On the other hand, Reid’s complex relationship with him in conjunction towards his sexuality is somewhat rushed for dramatic purposes as the plot quickly searches for a situation where Reid’s true intentions can finally surface in shock and horror, which I felt was replaced by feelings of confusion and awkwardness.
Nonetheless, despite that brief juncture of bewilderment, Rocketman is a dazzling musical voyage brimming with plenty of heart and soul, supported by outstanding performances, exuberant choreography by Adam Murray, and some wonderful re-imagining orchestrations of Elton’s songs by Matthew Margeson. Most importantly, it takes a risk as a 15 certificate (R-Rated in US) by not skimming over details in regards to Elton’s personal conflicts, and hopefully should introduce plenty of newcomers towards Elton John’s beloved music with the soundtrack release too.
Rocketman (2019), directed by Dexter Fletcher, is distributed in the UK by Paramount Pictures, certificate 15.