ROCKETMAN. Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard. Directed by Dexter Fletcher. 121 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong coarse language). Editor - be warned: there are sex scenes, language and adult themes which some Catholic viewers would find objectionable.
‘Rocketman’ succeeds as both biopic and musical, blending its warts and all examination of Elton John’s meteoric rise to superstardom and the personal demons that threatened to sink him with fantastical song and dance numbers, making full use of John’s litany of toe-tapping glam rock hits. It opens with a confession delivered in a close-up straight to camera by John (Taron Egerton) in American rehab centre, a list of character defects delivered with equal parts shame and satisfaction. John owns his addictions to booze, drugs and sex while dressed in a glittering devil costume complete with feathery wings and twisted horns, a bold statement rejecting any efforts to sugar coat his messy past. This admission morphs into a time-travelling rendition of ‘The Bitch is Back’ that catapults viewers back to his childhood in Middlesex, where the duet between John and his younger, still-Reggie-Dwight self (Sebastian Rich, a great find) is accompanied by an energetic crowd of dancers in 50s garb. It’s a clever set-up by writer Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher, the opening number clearly setting the tone for everything that’s to come.
The focus throughout is shared equally between John’s relationships and his music, which are presented as being almost inextricable. The cherubic Reggie’s first forays into music are an attempt to gain the attention and love of his largely absent father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and cold mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard). Reggie is more nurtured by his grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones), who encourages his talent on the piano, eventually leading to a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. After his father walks out on a teenage Reggie (Kit Connor) and Sheila, Sheila’s new partner Fred (Tom Bennett) encourages Reggie to buck the classical bent of his studies at the Academy and embrace the rock ‘n’ roll stylings of his idol, Elvis Presley.
‘Rocketman’ leaps quickly from Reggie’s founding of band Bluesology to the birth of his Elton John persona, and his signing by tough-love mentor and music publisher Dick James (Stephen Graham) and his producer Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe). A chance assignment from Ray to set a collection of lyrics to music leads Elton to his now legendary song writing partnership with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). If John’s ascent from stroking the keys in the backing band for touring artists to headlining his own sold out shows at the legendary Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles feels rapid in the nimble hands of editor Chris Dickens, it’s because it was, and because John’s story encounters more conflict when his fame attracts a variety of temptations. His big American break quickly draws his long-time romantic partner and manager John Reid (Richard Madden) into his life, presented here as a turbulent, borderline abusive affair. Stuck between a father who refused to show him the affection he so desperately needed and a mother who refused to accept his sexuality and struggles with addiction, it’s easy to see the appeal that Reid held for John. Charming, accepting and successful, Reid was a tipping point in John’s early career, shoring Elton John up as a huge industry unto himself but exacerbating his losing battle with alcohol, pills and cocaine.
The musical element of the film cleverly works its way through John’s biggest hits, ensuring its appeal to Elton John fans across the spectrum of devotion. Even when the lyrics don’t make total sense, the essential feeling of each piece is carefully modulated around the prevailing emotion of the scene. ‘Honky Cat’, for instance, induces a manic, tumultuous and almost sickening feeling, performed over a montage of John and Reid’s relationship as the former’s success reaches stratospheric levels (including a great throwaway sight gag about John’s on-and-off ownership of football team Watford F.C.). John’s songs make full use of star Taron Egerton’s terrific voice, which alongside his reasonable visual likeness to John would have been reason enough for his casting. The hair and makeup teams help Egerton convince as John, recreating his famously thinning hair and gap-toothed smile (in addition to some solid ageing work on other cast members). Costume designer Julian Day also assists greatly, drawing on John’s dazzling touring outfits to inspire several epic glam rock looks for the star. However, Egerton’s apparently not one to rest on his or others’ laurels, using John’s personal struggles to show off an emotional range not glimpsed in his previous roles. The screenplay uses its returns to John’s rehab confessional to move between key moments in John’s story. A heartbreaking visit to his father’s new family (including two sons who appear to be receiving the physical tenderness that John craved), for instance, might not have flowed in a regular linear telling, but seems a vital stop for John on his tour of his unresolved issues. Egerton nails this scene, making John raw and unashamedly torn up by this rejection.
Though it’s undoubtedly Egerton’s show, Jamie Bell also delivers standout work as Taupin. It’s perhaps a career best turn from the actor who has been recently been pushing himself in a range fascinating, eclectic projects, particularly in independent cinema. He really gets under Taupin’s skin, absorbing the curious Midlands accent and wry outlook on life, then infusing his relationship with John with a platonic love and respect that radiates off the screen. Though John experiences an emotional rollercoaster through ‘Rocketman’, Taupin is the gentle, soothing undercurrent that he can always rely on. As is often the case with musicals, there are already Oscar murmurs for Egerton, but I sincerely hope that Bell lands at least a nod in the Supporting Actor category. Elton John’s story has always had an element of the ugly duckling about it, the balding Englishman with the stubby fingers who went on to become one of the worlds best-selling and best-loved artists. Taupin’s advice, beautifully delivered by Bell to a struggling John is to ‘Remember who you are and be okay with it’; ‘Rocketman’ benefits from a clear-eyed understanding of who he is and why it’s important that he be portrayed honestly.
Director Dexter Fletcher, the hired gun bought in by 20th Century Fox to finish ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ after Bryan Singer’s firing, does an excellent job with the cast and the staging of the musical numbers. But it’s the contrast with his last musical biopic that crystallises his achievement here: a musical tribute that celebrates its subject without being obsequious or pulling its punches. Where ‘Bohemian’ felt crippled by its obligation to venerate the living members of Queen and its unwillingness to objectively portray Freddie Mercury, ‘Rocketman’ sets out almost gleefully to air John’s dirty laundry. It’s both celebration and meditation, and in finding that sweet spot between the two, it lands amongst the stars.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out May 30.