Rock star biopics are big business of late. The rather pedestrian (and factually flawed) Bohemian Rhapsody absolutely cleaned up at the box office and even garnered some ill-deserved awards into the bargain. Rocketman has the same director as Bo Rhap – or, at least, Dexter Fletcher steered the former film to fruition after Bryan Singer was obliged to step away from it. But Rocketman almost serves as an object lesson in how entertaining this genre can be when the filmakers have the balls to step away from the obvious and offer up something infinitely more experimental.
This is a fantasia, in its purest form, something that dares to take Elton John’s life story and play around with it. Ironically, in the process, it manages to get closer to the truth of the man behind the myth than Bo Rhap ever managed with Freddie Mercury.
When we first meet Elton, he’s attending a therapy session, dressed as a bright red devil, having just walked away from an important gig – and then, in flashback, we encounter young Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley), strugglng to obtain affection from his distant parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), establishing a distance between them that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Reginald learns he has an aptitude for playing the piano and an ability to effortlessly pick up any tune he hears. Pretty soon, he is older Reg (Kit Connor) and, in the space of one breathless fairground dance routine, he’s grown up to be Taron Egerton. We follow his career: his meeting with kindred spirit, Bernie Taupin (Jaimie Bell), his signing with hard-nosed business manager, Dick James (Stephen Graham), and his love affair with the cruelly manipulative John Reid (Richard Madden).
There’s his career making gig at LA’s Troubador Club and then all the manic excesses of rock hedonism are unleashed – alcoholism, drug and sex addiction, bulimia, that disastrous attempt at marriage… you name it, it’s all encompassed in a series of inventively staged scenes, backed by a seemingly endless collection of solid gold songs. Ironic then, that the film’s most effective moment has Elton belting out a cover version of The Who’s Pinball Wizard, while his piano spins giddily around and he goes through a whole collection of iconic costume transformations.
This film doesn’t attempt to cover EJ’s entire career, ending after his long spell in rehab and his triumphant return with I’m Still Standing, but it’s endlessly entertaining and doesn’t drag for a moment, not even through the inevitable nods to redemption at its conclusion. I am properly engaged from start to finish. Oh, and importantly – I think – that’s actually Taron Egerton singing all the songs, uncannily nailing EJ’s distinctive phrasing, without it ever feeling like an impersonation.
With so many reasons to go and see it, Rocketman is in serious danger of giving the rock biopic a good name. And Dexter Fletcher is now clearly the go-to man for musicians with a story to tell.