“People don’t pay to see Reg Dwight! They pay to see ELTON JOHN!”
Music biopics detailing the crazy ups and the drug fueled downs of a rock star’s life aren’t exactly rare and the latest, Rocketman, comes hot on the heels of the controversial Bohemian Rhapsody. That was an oddly sterilised Queen jukebox musical following the crazy exploits of the band and it’s leading man Freddie Mercury. It was a hugely entertaining film (and Rami Malek as Mercury was outstanding) but you couldn’t help but wonder what the film would look like if the drugs and sex weren’t taken out of the drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll equation. Well, Dexter Fletcher’s 15/R rated Rocketman aims to answer that question with the wonderfully camp biopic of rock legend Elton John.
John is played in the film by Taron Egerton, who made his name in the Matthew Vaughn directed Kingsman films (and Kingsman: The Golden Circle, incidentally, featured a hilarious cameo from Elton John playing a sweary, angry version of himself). Vaughn produces here, whilst Dexter Fletcher takes the director reins. Edgerton is no stranger to Elton John’s music, having not only starred with the man himself in Kingsman: The Golden Circle but having also sang ‘I’m Still Standing’ in Garth Jennings’ surprisingly good animated animal musical film Sing. His performance as Elton John here ends with another rendition of ‘I’m Still Standing’ but, like the rest of the Elton John music in the movie, it’s changed and adapted to fit the scene. Unlike the more formulaic Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman doesn’t simply play the tracks we all know and love, while the actors lip sync. In Rocketman, the actors actually sing and everything from the tempo to the genre to even the lyrics of the songs are changed, depending on what the scene requires. For example, an early scene see’s a young Elton, his emotionally distant parents and his loving Nana all singing a part of Elton’s 2001 hit ‘I Want Love’. Not everyone is a great singer (although all the Elton actors are phenomenal) but that adds to the emotion in the song, the lyrics feel more meaningful because of it.
Taron Egerton performance in the film is fantastic; he really nails the Elton John mannerisms and quirks but it never feels like a joke. Biopic performances can sometimes stray into impression territory, resembling an episode of Dead Ringers rather than a meaningful biopic performance. But Egerton is at ease as Elton John throughout the film, from a scene of him performing in a packed stadium to an intimate argument between him and long time writing partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). It’s an award winning performance, although it may have come at the wrong time of year for any of the major awards. The rest of the cast are largely brilliant, with special mention having to go to Bell as John’s long time lyricist Bernie Taupin. The relationship between John and him is nuanced and realistic. It’s another reason having the real Elton John involved with production has aided the film; it can show all sides of the man and his relationships with the people around him. Having said this, the portrayal of Elton’s manager John Reid is a bit more shaky. Whether it all went down in real life the way Elton recalls it in the film is up for debate but the performance by Richard Madden is once again brilliant. The same character was portrayed by Aidan Gillen in Bohemian Rhapsody in a slightly more friendly take on the character (although his sexuality was completely glossed over).
Fletcher proves to be a director to watch with Rocketman, although he has had a few smaller successes before it (Sunshine on Leith, Eddie The Eagle). Weirdly, Fletcher also had a role bringing Bohemian Rhapsody to the big screen; taking over the reigns on that, with two weeks of filming left, after director Bryan Singer was fired from the production. But on Rocketman, Fletcher is allowed to bring his own ideas and creates a much more engaging biopic. The key to this is the removal of the biopic’s most boring aspect – an adherence to reality. Rocketman presents it’s story of the life and times of Elton John instead as more of fairy tale. The facts are the facts (or last as far as Elton John is concerned) but they are presented through heightened reality song and dance numbers and dream-like sequences where the songs become part of the narrative. It’s fantastically camp, like Elton himself. Watch this film on the biggest screen with the loudest sound to really get the best experience, it’s not one to be missed.