Director: Dexter Fletcher
Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Gemma Jones, Steven Mackintosh, Matthew Illesley, Kit Connor, Charlie Rowe, Stephen Graham
The life of a rock star always looks so glamourous, with the money and the fame and the adoration of the public. But there is nearly always a not-so-glamourous tale behind the façade, something that many biopics have told us over the years. And now, it’s the turn of Elton John, the incredible singer and pianist who rose to huge heights of fame in the 1970s, a life that continues to this day. Along with his writing partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin, he created some of the most famous songs of all time. But along with that talent came a multitude of issues, and a life story that is ripe for the telling via cinematic means. But is it told well, or is it just another money spinner made off the back of another famous face and their personal struggles?
While attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Elton John (Egerton) delves into his past and what led to his AA attendance in the first place. Beginning as young Reggie Dwight (Illesley) in the 1960s, we see his childhood through his eyes, as his grandmother Ivy (Jones) encourages his musical talents, his mother Shelia (Howard) complains about her role as a mother and a housewife, and his father Stanley (Mackintosh) suffers PTSD, eventually turning his back on his family. We’re taken through Reggie’s teen years (Connor) as he grows into his musicianship and evolves into his eventual adult persona of Elton John, meeting writing partner Bernie Taupin (Bell) along the way. Their talents brought them fame and world-wide renown, along with drugs, sex, booze and people such as Elton’s one-time manager John Reid (Madden) who did not have the artist’s best interests at the forefront of their work. It all culminates in the philanthropic family man we’ve seen in reality for the past near-three decades, proving that where there’s a way in to the world of celebrity and all the negativity it brings with it, there’s also a way out.
Rocketman isn’t your average biopic. Yes, it recounts the highs and lows of Elton’s life, but it’s wonderfully done as a musical fantasy rather than as a straight-forward chronological story. John himself took on an executive producer role for the film, while his real-life partner David Furnish was a producer, and so much of the story and the way it’s portrayed will have come directly from John himself. On top of this, Fletcher’s direction is creative yet slick, entertaining whilst aesthetically pleasing and plays on audience emotions at exactly the right moments. Not only will this likely have been rather cathartic for John, but it feels somewhat cathartic for us as an audience too. Lee Hall, writer of many famous stage plays/musicals, such as Billy Elliot and War Horse, brings his stage experience to his writing, building something with Fletcher and John that is worthy of being put onstage itself (it wouldn’t be a surprise if this one day became a reality). It’s very theatrical, as flamboyant at times as John himself, though without a hint of conceit on his part. It’s raw and honest (even with any dramatic license taken) and it exposes John’s vulnerabilities, but also his strengths, making for a character whom we want to root for, even when he is being a self-confessed c*nt.
Unlike 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of Queen and Freddie Mercury (there will inevitably be comparisons between the two films, especially with John having been a friend of Mercury and Fletcher having part-directed Bohemian Rhapsody), John had a lot of input within his own biopic, something Mercury never got the chance to do, and as an audience you can feel the difference; John’s personal experiences and personality shine through Rocketman but Mercury is somewhat stifled in Bohemian Rhapsody. John can be overtly himself in the way his story is told, but Mercury is stuck within a standard start-to-finish, three-act structure. Both films use music in order to give audiences a better feel of who the artist was at a certain point in time, but Rocketman does a far better job in its framing, using the AA meeting as a catalyst for John to revisit his darkest times, and using the music to structure the story. The songs are often out of chronological order, but they tend to coincide with John’s inability to recall exactly what song came when due to his intoxication at certain points in his life, or more likely they reflect particular times when a song resonated the most with his personal life.
All of this may not have been possible without the talented Egerton portraying the many sides of Elton John in what is a career-best (thus far) performance. John apparently told Egerton not to imitate him entirely, but to feel his own way into the character and the story. Even so, Egerton’s physicality and vocals are spot on, doing the real-life John epic justice in his overall performance, not only when he is Elton John, but also when he’s Reggie Dwight, the shy and emotionally introverted side of the personality. Illesley and Connor portraying younger versions of John are also captivating, very talented for such young lads. Bell is an excellent Bernie, a well-rounded supporting character that much of the time acts as Elton’s crutch throughout his turmoil. Madden has shown a flair for the antagonistic role as John Reid, his stern and unemotional treatment of Elton causing much of the friction between Elton, his loved ones and even himself. Howard, Jones and Mackintosh help to elevate Elton’s story with their pivotal roles as his early influences, Mackintosh in particular paving the way for Elton’s more emotional scenes that will resonate with many a moviegoer and will bring anyone to tears. Although the movie is about Elton John, Rocketman very much feels like an ensemble piece, every character playing a vital role in building the persona of Elton John, held together deftly by Fletcher’s direction.
In hindsight, if Rocketman had been released before Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s likely the latter would have had a lesser score in its review. As entertaining and insightful as Bohemian Rhapsody was, Rocketman has a much more unique way of telling a story that we often hear about, of a celebrity going “off the rails” and struggling with very personal demons. It may make you wonder what Fletcher could have done with Bohemian Rhapsody had he been involved from the beginning. It has apparently taken John twenty years to get his life story into cinemas, but if that’s what it takes in order to craft something that’s as uniquely entertaining as John is without losing its personal touch, then that’s just fine. On top of his three-year retirement tour, it’s a fabulous way to put a lot of demons to rest, as well as give something back to the dedicated fans. It’s nice to know that, despite all he’s been through, Elton John is still standing, and probably better than he ever did.