Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Starring Taron Egerton, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jamie Bell, Steven Mackintosh, Stephen Graham.
The Plot: It’s 1990 and famed singer Elton John (Taron Egerton) is in rehab after burning out. In group therapy sessions, he relates his rise to fame through a haze of possibly unreliable memories. He visualises his life, from his early days as a struggling singer-songwriter who found a kindred musical mind in Bernie (Jamie Bell) to his destructive relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden) and beyond. Amid the idealised version of his flamboyant self, there are darker moments in which he comes to realise that he lacked affection and respect from his parents Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh). But this young Rocketman made something of himself and launched himself onto the world stage to great acclaim…
The Verdict: Having briefly done uncredited work on last year’s unstoppable mega-hit ‘musical’ Bohemian Rhapsody, Dexter Fletcher now offers Rocketman. It’s his own fully-directed biopic of a famed singer – one Reginald Dwight, more famously known as Elton John. The veteran actor has come a long way since his memorable directorial debut Wild Bill and he already has form in the musical arena with the delightful Sunshine On Leith. As he and his production team have been at great pains to point out though, Rocketman is a very different film from the controversial Bohemian Rhapsody (though no doubt Paramount is hoping for a similarly-sized hit). Rocketman has the full backing of John himself, who also serves as an executive producer.
Lee Hall’s screenplay has a very clever narrative structure. It frames John’s story as a ‘warts and all’ biopic, but seen through the rose-tinted glasses of memory. This being Elton John, those rose-tinted glasses are oversized and have actual roses on them. As he recounts his story to a group therapy session (the surrogate audience), his life and the people in it become a cast of characters in a musical. This neatly does away with the need to be entirely accurate to John’s life, hence elaborate song and dance numbers and a solid, larger-than-life performance from Taron Egerton. The poster even bills it as ‘a true fantasy’, so you can take it with a pinch of salt – or maybe a few spoonfuls of sugar.
Those warts aren’t too prominent, only raising their heads when required (e.g. the deterioration of John’s relationship with manager/lover John Reid). Fletcher’s emphasis here is mainly on the fun aspects of John’s personality and his ability to just let the music flow out of him like water out of a tap. The most interesting relationship in the film is the one that is sadly the most under-cooked: that of his friendship with songwriter Bernie. There’s great rapport between Egerton and Bell here and you can fully believe that Elton and Bernie have never had an argument. Bernie leaves the story for a while and his presence is missed. More of that anchoring central friendship wouldn’t have gone amiss. Some characters are given even more short shrift, such as John’s first spouse. There appear to be a number of scenes left on the cutting-room floor.
By the time the credits roll to the entirely appropriate I’m Still Standing, you’re left in no doubt that Elton John overcame all the temptations of the music industry to keep on keeping on, delivering one great hit after another. Fletcher has huge admiration and respect for his subject and it shows. Though, for a biopic of a major musician it comes across as a little too much razzle dazzle and not enough substance. Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had watching Rocketman. It may not hit the stratosphere, but it reaches for the stars.