Superheroes and musicians seem to be the go-to subjects for films at the moment; after the success of Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody over the winter, we now have Rocketman gracing the screens. Written by Lee Hall (best known for Billy Elliot and also responsible for the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, amongst others) and directed by Dexter Fletcher, this is the story of the life and career of one Reginald Dwight – better known worldwide as Elton Hercules John.
The doors burst open and a sparkling, horned figure approaches. Elton John should be on a stage somewhere, but instead he finds himself at an AA meeting; the years of substance abuse and eating disorders have caught up with him, and he wants to make a clean start. At first reluctant to take things seriously, he soon opens up about his past – this takes him back to his childhood in Pinner, Saturdays at the Royal Academy of Music, and desperately wishing for a bit of affection from his distant father. After some time playing with Bluesology in the local pub, he & the band are invited to go on the road with some new American soul groups; Reggie’s eyes are still on rock ‘n’ roll stardom and, after answering an ad, he finds himself in publisher Dick James’ office – he leaves with an envelope full of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics and his new stage name. Once the pair meet they become an inseparable songwriting machine; Your Song finally provides them with the breakthrough they’ve been searching for, and Elton is immediately booked for a life-changing performance at the Troubadour in LA…
As with any biographical film, the issue of truth versus fiction is bound to come up and dissatisfy some, but my advice is that they go and watch a documentary if they want to stick as rigidly to the facts as possible. What’s particularly smart about this film is that it is within the framework of Elton’s group therapy session in rehab, so pretty much everything that happens is coming out of his memories of what has happened; memory is unreliable enough at the best of times, let alone in the aftermath of years of substance abuse! It’s all from the perspective of a broken man, fixating on the highs & lows, and possibly trying to rewrite bits of them in his head.
Not only does Rocketman play fast and loose with the truth, but it’s also a full-on musical – the “musical fantasy” tag is well and truly justified. I’m not sure the straight biopic approach would have worked anywhere near as well; Elton John’s range of ludicrous stage costumes (including matching specs) and his flamboyant stage presence lend themselves to a more theatrical adaptation, plus he mentions to Bernie how the music is all there in his head trying to force its way out – is it completely inconceivable then to bring certain moments to life through song and dance? The tracks taken from John’s back catalogue aren’t necessarily in chronological order, instead chosen mostly for emotional impact (such as young Reggie’s plea for affection in I Want Love, and Bernie & Elton’s epiphanies in Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), as well as there being some big concert and dance numbers.
Adam Murray’s choreography explodes from the screen with the early showstopper Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting), as well as providing some incredibly expressive moments – the short sequence in Rocket Man as Elton is taken into hospital is so very beautiful. The whole thing would work so well as a stage production, that I couldn’t help but picture how certain parts might be tweaked to fit, and even considering the kind of theatre that would suit it best! Matthew Margeson’s musical arrangements also lend themselves to a stage production, allowing different voices in and providing a sense of scale; these versions don’t deviate massively from the originals, so fans shouldn’t be shocked or put off by the slight changes. I’d also like to give Chris Dickens a mention for cinematography – there are some stunning shots in this film, plus I rather enjoyed the splicing together of new and old footage to create part of the I’m Still Standing music video.
The icing on the cake is the casting. As a regular theatregoer, it’s lovely to see some stage regulars in there (including Jason Pennycooke, Sharon D. Clarke, Celinde Schoenmaker, Rachel Muldoon and Layton Williams), and there are some other terrific supporting performances from Stephen Graham with masterful comic timing as Dick James, and Bryce Dallas Howard is almost caring as Elton’s mum Sheila, though ultimately she’s incredibly self-centred. Richard Madden is suave and increasingly cruel as manager & lover John Reid, quickly embedding himself in Elton’s life & career before the naïve young singer realises it. In contrast, Jamie Bell’s Bernie Taupin is a more grounding presence – you can sense his hurt and frustration as Elton spirals out of control, and away from their shared roots.
This is the Elton John story, though, and unquestionably it’s Taron Egerton who stands out with a stellar leading performance. His vocals are astonishing – reminiscent enough of John to bring the character to life, but not so much that it sounds like he’s doing an impersonation – you find yourself eagerly waiting for the next number. Your Song is a definite highlight – the fact that it’s sung totally live makes it that bit more touching. Egerton is exceptional from the word go, capturing the cocktail of vulnerability, exuberance & anger that form the core of his character; his portrayal of Elton’s need for love is heartbreaking at times, but also balanced out by a great comic touch & sense of fun. An Oscarworthy performance in a top class musical biography.
My verdict? One of the best films of the year so far, fit to burst with theatricality, sequins and rock ‘n’ roll – I think it’s gonna be a long long time ’till we get another musical biopic quite like this one…
Rocketman is in cinemas nationwide now. The soundtrack is available to purchase or stream.