Film Review: Rocketman blasts the Elton John musical biopic into the stratosphere

Only several months after cinema screens were graced with Bohemian Rhapsody and part of the journey of Queen’s meteoric rise to fame. We now have Rocketman, which examines another flamboyant and influential musician, Elton John, and unlike the former, this film decidedly takes a bit more of a leap both stylistically and also narratively. Because any film about Elton is a film that is going to have to be nothing short of extravagant.

Coincidentally, director Dexter Fletcher, star Taron Egerton, and Elton John have all been connected in a weird six degrees kind of way. With Fletcher and Egerton having previously worked together on film Eddie The Eagle, and Fletcher having limbered his directing chops in musical drama film Sunshine On Leith. Egerton sang John’s hit “I’m Still Standing” as part of the animated film Sing!, as well as acted alongside John in Kingsman: The Golden Circle. So it seems in some ways that this trio were destined to work on this film.

The screenplay by Lee Hall, who also penned Billy Elliot, and Fletcher’s direction, prefers to mesh elements of reality with pure fantasy. The film opens with John (Egerton) striding into a rehabilitation facility wearing a flashy orange devil outfit complete with horns and wings. We’re pretty sure this didn’t happen exactly as such, but we do know that John did enter into rehab. And it’s from here both Hall and Fletcher’s film straddles not only the reality of John’s actual life events, but also embellishing moments with touches of musical fantasy flair. Another such scene is one of John’s early performances at the infamous Troubadour club in Los Angeles, where a rendition of “Crocodile Rock” sees John and the entire audience floating off the ground briefly before erupting into a flurry of cheering and dancing. Obvious comparisons with Bohemian Rhapsody will abound, but where that film preferred to play it safe, Rocketman embraces some of the dirty and more problematic moments of John’s life. There’s no glamourising the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle either as we see it taking its toll on John’s ability to perform and alienating him from his closest allies.

Egerton’s performance as Elton John traverses a gamut of emotions, as we are given an insight into the early emotional trauma and later on the self-inflicted abuse. We see a young Reggie Dwight pleading “When are you going to hug me?” as his father accuses him of “being soft”. And an older Dwight, now insisting on being called Elton John, butting heads with his mother Sheila (a barely recognisable Bryce Dallas Howard) over her inability to connect with him. But some of the most touching are the moments of platonic intimacy and working relationship with long time collaborator Bernie Taupin played with grace and heart by Jamie Bell. Describing Taupin as “the brother he never had”, Bell’s understated and quiet performance is the yin to Egerton’s overt and showy yang which allows for moments of breathing room between the outrageous musical interstitials.

Where the film does struggle a little is in some of the supporting performances, obviously these are meant to be influential characters who shape John’s life and his career trajectory. But they’re not really given a lot to work with other than surface motivations and we don’t see how deeply their connections to John are. These include Steven Mackintosh as John’s father who is more interested in work than actually being a father. And Richard Madden as John Reid, John’s lover and ex-manager, is portrayed as slimy and manipulative. Both of them have particularly damaging effects on John’s life in different ways, but neither are really explored in great depth. His marriage to Renate Blauel is only briefly brought up, and his relationship and subsequent marriage to his current partner David Furnish is only done as an epilogue in title cards at the end of the film before the credits.

Obviously this film is going to feature his music, and there are some sequences that probably strike a chord (pun intended) more than others. A young teen Reggie transitions to an older Reggie using “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” set to a choreographed dance/fight in a pub. Or Taupin handing John some lyrics for “Your Song” and moments later we hear those familiar chords tinkled on a piano. Or a recreation of the “I’m Still Standing” video clip, complete with cheesy beach scenes. The titular song in particular begins underwater for particular effect, but transitions to one of John’s performances at a baseball stadium and ends with him literally launching into the stratosphere like a rocket and exploding into fireworks. It must be said that Egerton is here singing all of the songs and doing a brilliant job of it no less.. And credit where credit is due to costume designer Julian Day who dresses Egerton in some of the most garish outfits committed to screen. The costuming is almost as iconic as the music and so it’s only right that they feature as heavily.

Fletcher’s fantastical biopic of Elton John is full of flourishes and flamboyance. Assisted by Egerton’s excellent and heartfelt performance that is elevated by his ability to embody the musician so completely both in appearance and voice. It’s outlandish and hallucinatory moments may be jarring for some viewers. But it lends itself to a more other-worldly type of movie, one that dabbles in both truth and reverie.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Rocketman is out in Australian cinemas from 30th May 2019 through Paramount Pictures Australia

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