Magical realism meets music biopic in Dexter Fletcher’s flamboyant take on the life of the equally flamboyant Elton John, brought to life by a full-bodied lead and a compelling supporting cast. Following the mixed reception of last years Bohemian Rhapsody, which undoubtedly will be drawn on for comparisons against Rocketman, the music-focused biopic needed a boost and Rocketman does not fail to deliver there. Reworking the formula, Fletcher has found an exciting way to offer up the highs, lows, and hits of the singer. And all he had to do was make the thing a musical.
Elton John’s breakthrough years are the focus of this jukebox musical; reflecting on his first time at the piano, through his early days releasing music, to his tragic turn to alcoholism and drugs. It’s a character journey that is all too familiar within the music industry, as soon as music publisher Dick James jokingly tells Elton not to “kill himself with drugs” the audience knows that this will be the exact situation he’ll be facing by the end of the movie. However, despite following his career taking off, Rocketman is at its core about Elton’s relationships with those around him as he rises and falls in quick succession and about the man beneath the wild costumes and even wilder conduct.
Taking on such a well-known figure, and well-known narrative arc, was always going to be a tricky feat. Thankfully having worked on several biopics, Fletcher knows exactly how to get around this. The first and most important step being to get Taron Egerton on board. Egerton truly is the rocketman of the film, giving a committed performance that is honest and vulnerable even when he’s dressed like a bedazzled chicken and shouting at his friends. It’s a performance that goes far in avoiding the self-pitying; yes, we see and sympathise with Elton’s struggle, but at the same time we lead to view his diva tendencies as they rise up and the destruction that results from them.
But what is Elton John without a little diva? His extravagant outfits and exuberant style of performing were so much a part of his music, which is perfectly captured throughout Rocketman. With costumes re-created for filming and set design overflowing with glam rock, every frame is full to the brim with colour and life. This is especially so when it comes to the musical numbers, of which there are just enough to maintain the fun without overbearing the bleaker plot points. Each sequence is bursting with energy and the full cast and chorus bring a new life to Elton’s songs, even if you’ve never heard an Elton John song in your life you’ll struggle not to be whisked away by their performances.
Most if not all of the supporting cast get a song to perform and it really shouldn’t be surprising that this stellar cast can all sing as well as they can act; the stand-outs being Jamie Bell as Elton’s long-time friend and lyricist Bernie Taupin and Richard Madden’s villainous manager John Reid. Elton’s interactions with each of the two allow for an interesting exploration of Elton’s sexuality, which is shown fully and explicitly, making Rocketman the first major studio film to depict a male gay sex scene on screen. An unrequited attraction to Bernie mimics some of Elton’s early insecurities, drawing him back into a place of self-doubt and making him easy pickings for the manipulative hands of Reid.
From the flashy and vibrant opening acts, Rocketman pushes into a purposefully disorientating finale that sees days, weeks, and months fly by in a drug and alcohol fuelled blur. The darker content doesn’t diminish the films’ bright nature, however, and is all the better for it. Although the very end of the film moves into the twee and overly sentimental, Rocketman on the whole takes a well-worn story and turns it into something that feels fresh and original. Capturing the spirit of Elton John, the man, it is about learning how to be who you are, accept who you were born to be, and work towards the person you want to be.
Rocketman opens nationwide in UK cinemas May 22.