After my disappointed reaction to the other musical biopic of recent months involving Dexter Fletcher, I can’t deny that I was worried going into Rocketman, the cinematic interpretation of the life and career of Elton John. Early notices from Cannes were surprisingly optimistic though, and combined with my fondness for John’s music, I went into my screening cautious but hopeful.
I absolutely loved it.
The film’s posters posit Rocketman as a story “based on a true fantasy”, and it’s clear from the film’s opening number – a rehab-based reminiscence to Elton’s childhood in Pinner, set to “The Bitch is Back” – that this isn’t going to be a by-numbers biopic. There are certainly moments in the film where the genre’s conventions are observed: the auspicious meeting between Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin is probably the closest the film gets to a straightforward encounter in the entire running time. For the most part though, Rocketman plays out like a 2 hour Wurlitzer ride: full of colour, music and frenetic energy.
At the centre of the madness is Taron Egerton’s phenomenal performance as Elton John, and if he wasn’t on the path to movie-stardom from his success with the Kingsmen movies, his work in Rocketman will undoubtedly send his career into overdrive. The film presents John as a man of many facets: funny, lonely, temperamental and often boastful, but able to back it up with his musical talents.
Egerton manages to capture all of this, and he does so while also singing and dancing throughout; the man is unstoppable.
It’s to be commended that even with the involvement of both Elton John and his husband David Furnish – Furnish produced the film, John has an exec. producer credit – Rocketman has been given license to really get under the skin of its central character. As we’ve seen in recent musical biopics mentioned before, the presence of those depicted can often prove detrimental to the truth of the film’s story, but here it feels like director Dexter Fletcher and writer Lee Hall were actively encouraged to get to grips with the singer’s lowest lows, and present them for the world to see without pretence.
The end result is certainly refreshingly honest about Elton John’s past vices and difficult relationships with his parents, Taupin, and his first love and manager, John Reid. While it does beg the question whether some aspects were amplified for effect, I honestly can’t recall a biopic from recent years that was more ready to show the full picture of its subject, rather than some polished, idealised version.
For all of the light shed on Elton’s troubled past however, the film is, from beginning to end, a celebration of the man and his music, and boy is it joyous. Every musical number is finely choreographed, and the songs chosen actually fit the narrative being told, rather than feeling wrenched awkwardly into the story – as can happen with these films. There are some song choices that feel a little obvious, but Egerton’s delivery and Fletcher’s direction bring it all together beautifully.
I’ve always been a strong advocate for Dexter Fletcher’s woefully underrepresented Proclaimers-inspired movie Sunshine On Leith, and now with Rocketman he’s without doubt one of the finest musical filmmakers currently in the business. Rocketman is a rare beast; a film that doubles down on its visual spectacle, but doesn’t forget to give its audience the necessary emotional investment for any of it to matter. This film is really very special, and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. To steal a phrase, I think it’s going to be a long, long time until we see a biopic done as well as this.