Starring: Taron Egerton, Richard Madden, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, Gemma Jones, Steven Mackintosh Director: Dexter Fletcher Country: UK When it was announced there was going to be an Elton John biopic, there was a lot to be sceptical about. With less than a year since Bohemian Rhapsody, it seemed likely that this could only be its younger, poorer sister, focusing as it does on a less-known and less-iconic star whose music doesn’t hold anywhere near the same kind of status. Add to that sharing the same director and with Elton himself as executive producer, this felt like the prestige piece of a very rich star realising his own dream to create his own biopic, with bizarre casting that felt like the product of a drunken “Who would play you in a movie about your life?” conversation at a dinner party in suburbia. But then fast-forward to the film itself and I couldn’t be more wrong. There’s no denying that Bohemian Rhapsody has the stronger story, but Rocketman has been constructed in such a way that the only thing they have in common is that they centre around gay, British rockstars. This is a musical. It’s not a “musical” in which the singer gets up on stage and performs all the hits; no, this is an actual MUSICAL that sees Elton’s back catalogue transformed into all-singing all-dancing showtunes, belted out by the entire cast, chorus and at times, every extra on set. It has all the pizzazz of Fosse but the snappy editing and choreography of The Greatest Showman, bundled together to create the make even the biggest Elton critic smile. And - full disclosure - I went into Rocketman knowing only about 4 Elton tunes and was decidedly of the opinion that they were a bit “meh”. Not anymore! We meet Elton (Egerton) at an AA meeting in New York where he has arrived in full stage costume (orange angel wings, catsuit, Maleficent horns) to admit to all his addictions. There, he reflects on his life, recounting the relationship with his overbearing mother (Howard) and emotionally distant father (Mackintosh), from whom his only escape was music, for which he had a prodigy-like talent. As a young man and working for a record company, he’s given the lyrics of songwriter Bernie Taupin (Bell) and what he creates is seen quickly by his employers to be something quite special. They rush out his music and send him on a promo tour of America, where he meets record mogul John Reid (Madden) who becomes both his boyfriend and his manager. Except Reid is not as charming as he appears. And so begins Elton’s decline into alcohol, drugs and profound depression. This is a star-making turn from Taron Egerton. The Welsh Kingsman actor shows astonishing range within the part, submerged in a character that walks a difficult balance between introversion and extrovert showmanship. At times bumbling and mawkish, at times bursting with charisma, Egerton finds truth within the role that feels head and shoulders over just impersonation. He makes the distinction between the meek and shy Reggie Dwight and the sheer presence of Elton John, shown both through physicality and the way he inhabits the vast array of astonishing costumes. And the singing? You might as well be listening to Elton himself. There’s strong support from Bell and Madden, but the real tour-de-force comes from the outstanding Bryce Dallas Howard. The older Elton’s mother gets, the more detestably selfish she becomes and she revels in the part, charting a steady decline into Cruella de Ville territory, which wholly works in the context of this movie and steals every one of her scenes. There’s a theatricality about Rocketman that we rarely see on screen nowadays. But of course, Elton himself is the definition of theatricality: camp, overblown artifice used to cover the humanity beneath. Music is used to illustrate pivotal narrative moments, while the lines between reality and fantasy are frequently blurred as we watch an entire audience float into the air or see Elton having a conversation with his younger self. There are times when it toes the line with cliché, but there’s so much originality surrounding it that you can forgive a moment or two of sentimentality (the AA sequences do feel contrived at times). But vacuum-packed with visual delights, you can’t help but find yourself beaming at the screen. In terms of story, there’s little to set Elton’s story apart from his peers. It’s a rise to fame/descent into addiction/overcoming adversity story that we have definitely seen before, but the sheer level of screen-craft is astonishing. Is this naval-gazing? Maybe, but director Fletcher has clearly had so much fun creating it that we can entirely forgive them. Rocketman is nothing less than sheer joy, which uses every filmic trick in cinema’s arsenal to serve up a smorgasbord of feel-good delights. And on the way home I listened to Elton’s Greatest Hits and thought “These songs are quite good actually”, which is surely job done? Oh and in comparison with Bohemian Rhapsody, this is by FAR the superior film.
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