Rocketman (2019, Paramount Pictures)
Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Written by Lee Hall. Featuring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Stephen Graham and Bryce Dallas Howard.
After eying the trailer for Rocketman earlier this year, I had a cynical supposition that it was only attempting to jump on the bandwagon of success that greeted Bohemian Rhapsody last year, and inevitably it was going to be shite. But kudos to director Dexter Fletcher (who co-directed Rhapsody). He has mindfully, and masterfully, crafted another extremely entertaining musical-biographical film. His cast of upcoming and seasoned actors are perfectly judged in the various roles. Taron Egerton draws us in with his portrayal of the hugely talented but troubled musician, and he is superb in both acting and singing (going one step further than Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury by actually performing the songs). Bryce Dallas Howard (an American playing an English woman, imagine!) is fantastic as John’s mother. While both Jamie Bell, as his long-time songwriter-collaborator Bernie Taupin, and Stephen Graham, as the ‘pulls-no-punches’ record publisher Dick James, are also impressive. Elton John and his husband David Furnish produced the film having wanted to make it for nearly two decades, with reasons around censorship causing the delay – yes kids, we still live in a universe where homophobia is still widely tolerated (just to let you know, the film was censored in Russia and banned in Samoa and Egypt).
The purpose of the film is clear – to tell the story of Elton John’s meteoric rise, his personal fall and his defiant resurgence – and it never falters in its course. The film begins in London in the 1950s and 60s where he grew up as Reginald Dwight. Then it moves on to his stunning breakthrough years in the US in the late 60s and early 70s, and on to his spiralling drug-fuelled period in the late 70s and 80s. The storyline is not just a straight-forward biopic about ‘number one hit’ this or ‘homosexual encounter’ that. It is a deeply personal and empathetic story about John’s mental struggles with success and substance abuse. The relationship with his awful parents, particularly his father, and his platonic partnership with Taupin is front and centre to this story, and it is wonderfully depicted with both pizazz and the right amount of edginess. The crowd-pleasing music, particularly the songs’ lyrics, act as a stable glue to events. And this is what makes the film so great. The scenes that break-out into song could have been far cheesier if they didn’t offer such a backbone of emotive meaning. I understand now that ‘Tiny Dancer’ was about Taupin’s first wife whom he met upon arriving in LA, and ‘I’m Still Standing’ was a type of ‘fuck you’ directed at John’s former lover and manager John Reid, who plays the vindictive villain of the piece. The music set-pieces come thick and fast (‘The Bitch is Back’, ‘Honky Cat’ and ‘Pinball Wizard’ being stand-outs) and having other characters take part in the vocals was a nice touch I think.
I will be honest, I have always been an avid fan of John’s music, so it was inevitable I was going to have a soft spot for this film. At times there is a danger that it will overindulge in spectacle, and it probably does, but I think Fletcher does manage to balance the idea of ‘Elton the Entertainer’ with ‘Elton the Living Person’ very well. These two subjects are as interesting to watch as the other. The moment where he rocks the Troubadour with ‘Crocodile Rock’, thus announcing his arrival on the scene (with artistic license taken to that famous donkey kick), is truly electrifying. But the moment where his heart is broken by his father is also terribly affecting on a raw, emotional level. In a period where musical biopics are making some strong statements, Rocketman offers enough magic and grit to be regarded amongst the best of them.
Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 4/5