It’s taken Elton John and partner David Furnish the best part of two decades to produce Rocketman. That’s one hell of a dedicated vanity project. Now, with Dexter Fletcher at the helm, the dream has become a whiz-banging reality, albeit one with a relatively loose grasp on the truth. Rocketman is glitzy, fantastical and increasingly dark entertainment. The more Elton loses control on screen, the more Fletcher seizes it behind. Come for the music, take away surprisingly acute insight into the nature of addiction and the pitfalls of fame.
Squeezing the best part of half a century within the space of two hours, Rocketman is almost as zippy as last year’s John Lewis Christmas advert in its handling of the icon’s biography. While, there’s obvious overlap here with last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody – not least thanks to the dual directorship of Fletcher – more broadly, Rocketman is a very tidy entry into the music biopic lineage. Even Jersey Boys comes to mind. Framed by a rehab-based alcoholics anonymous session – which Elton grandiloquently attends in full devilish regalia – this is the story of how a tubby kid from Middlesex came to sell three hundred million records across the globe and ‘f**k everything’ that moves in the process. As introduced, Elton is a self-proclaimed alcoholic, bulimic shopaholic and indiscriminating drug addict. Flashback to the fifties, though, and we find Reggie Dwight, the youngster who just wants a hug from his dad (Steven Mackintosh).
Fletcher’s galvanising asset in elevating so stolid a biopic formula – Elton literally rises, falls and resolves – is the way in which the hero’s musical catalogue lifts landmarks. Few significant episodes are afforded more that ten minutes of airtime – the entirety of John’s ill fated four year marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) scrapes merely five – but much is made up in well choreographed numbers. The judicious use of ‘I Want Love’ to establish the familial dynamics of John’s early years is sublimely humanising, whilst Fletcher brilliantly shoots the titular song underwater – a la Trainspotting – at the very pit of Elton’s decline. In homage to his idiosyncratic sense of style, much of Elton’s outlandish fashion past is lovingly recreated for songs performed as live but it’s a subtle flourish that sees his rehab self stripped down as the story unfolds.
With Justin Timberlake once touted for the lead role – seriously, he was – Rocketman was always expected to lean favourably in the defence of its protagonist. To this end, Taron Egerton portrays Elton with impassioned sympathy and a forgiving grace. For all the tantrums and horrific mistreatment of long term collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), Lee Hall’s script goes to great lengths to remind viewers that his subject’s legendary diva reputation was formed through nurture not nature. It should come as no surprise that Hall previously wrote Billy Elliot. Egerton is terrific in balancing all, imbuing flights of fantasy with exuberant energy but applying impressive restraint when required. Throughout, his eyes channel caverns of depth and let’s not forget that incredible voice. Ever since he belted ‘I’m Still Standing’ in gorilla form for animated hit Sing, Egerton was headed directly for this peak.
More so than the heavily critiqued Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman embraces its subject’s homosexuality, with Richard Madden raising Aiden Gillen’s take on John Reid via the addition of seductive wiles and dangerous libido. In other roles, terrific turns by Gemma Jones and an unrecognisable Bryce Dallas Howard do well to portray the mixed female influences on Elton’s life, whilst crisp comedy comes curtesy of Stephen Graham. Behind the scenes, George Richmond photographs Fletcher’s dynamic vision splendidly and Chris Dickens gives John Ottoman a lesson in editing. Something about Rocketman feels earthier and less polished than Bohemian Rhapsody and what an asset that is.