Taron Egerton is absolutely electric as Elton John in Dexter Fletcher’s imaginative, brash and dazzling musical biopic of the legendary musician
Sometimes a biopic about a musician is more interested in jamming as many songs as possible into a film, coming out at the end as merely having listened to a greatest hits album, and for some audiences that can be enough. What director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie and the Eagle), along with screenwriter Lee Hall, achieves with Rocketman is something more akin to a Broadway musical or the likes of Moulin Rouge! and Hedwig and the Angry Inch than something like Bohemian Rhapsody. Here, the songs create and feed the story.
Each section of John’s life is turned into lavish numbers that any gay kid with a passion for sequins and performing has thought of in their lifetime. For young Reginald Dwight, it began with a real ear for sound. He hears a piece of music on the radio and begins playing it back immediately. He goes to an audition and plays what the teacher was just playing, all from memory. As his parents, Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) is quite a sight – all martinis and vacuuming in heels and caring very little Reg. Steven Mackintosh (Different for Girls) is emotionally removed from his son, only commenting to admonish him. “Stop looking at that, you’re not a girl,” he says as Reg flips through him mum’s dress pattern mag.
The story is told essentially in imagined flashback, with an orange devil suited Elton John, horns and crystal-encrusted for the gods, bursts into a support group circle to talk about his various addictions (alcohol, cocaine, sex, anger management). We’re in his much-publicized rehab back in 1990. But quickly enough we’re in the Pinner area of 1950s London, where his 5-year old self (played by Matthew Illesley) is singing “The Bitch Is Back” with his neighbors as back up dancers. His parents and his loving gran (Gemma Jones) help provide the vocals for what will be the theme coursing through the veins of the film, “I Want Love.”
Along the way he is connected with songwriter Bernie Taupin (beautifully played by Jamie Bell), with whom he gets on with smashingly and will end up becoming his lyricist for the next 50 years. Their duet while creating “Your Song,” the longing and truth of it, is the film’s most poignant moment. John’s search for love and acceptance manifests in an attempt to merge the platonic and the romantic with Taupin, who he respectfully declines. This leads him down the path to John Reid (played with ruthless sexuality by Richard Madden), who becomes his lover and manager but with cruel intentions as both.
His US debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles is a dream-filled fantasy where the moment John kicks up his heels at the piano turns the entire audience begins to rise with him. It’s a credit to Fletcher that he leans in to such moments rather than pull back as many directors would. Its result is euphoric and thrilling.
Anyone familiar with Egerton’s career already knew he could sing – he literally sang “I’m Still Standing” in the 2016 animated film Sing. “Your Song” was his audition for drama school. Elton John had a role in Egerton’s Kingsman sequel. This was absolute destiny and he’s more than up to the challenge. I think it’s almost crucial that Egerton, who does all of his own singing for the film in an Oscar-worthy performance, doesn’t really sound (or look) that much like John. He’s able to create an elevated, magical version of Elton John that’s all his own and less an impersonation.
The film’s script walks the line with common tropes of rising fame and stardom where “Please give me another chance” at once in a lifetime auditions and the like are peppered throughout and every cautionary tale element is touched upon like checking off a bucket list. But Fletcher understands that it’s about the music and just before things get too sloggy, sequences kick in like music videos and provide us with energy needed. Elton and John Reid’s first date is a perfect example as the boys move effortlessly from set piece to set piece imagining what their rendezvous will look like.
To say Julian Day’s costumes are fabulous is an understatement. At the end of the film we see quite a few side by sides of John and Egerton in the film version of the costumes and for Day it was not about making exact re-creations of them but versions that fit with the film and he does so to stunning effect.
The film ends with a perfect re-creation of John’s “I’m Still Standing” video, a comeback anthem if there ever was one, even if the song was recorded and released nearly a decade before John’s actual comeback and release from rehab. But, in the ever-anachronistic world of Rocketman it doesn’t matter, nor does it lessen the impact – it even enhances it. John has been a survivor his entire life and Egerton provides a perfect proxy with which to tell the tale. The bitch, the bitch, the bitch is back.
Rocketman will be released from Paramount Pictures on May 31st. It world premiered out of competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival on May 16th.