The poster tagline tells us that Rocketman, a dazzling all-singing, all-dancing account of the rise and (thankfully temporary) fall of Elton John, is “based on a true fantasy.” It’s a cheeky little phrase which, in theory, allows the film-makers to be selective and/or fanciful in presenting their version of events, and they certainly take glee in re-creating the more fantastical elements of a superstar who, at the height of his fame, was responsible for one in every 20 records sold anywhere on the planet.
Yet, behind the glitter, glam threads and increasingly over-the-top eyewear one instantly associates with Elton the performer in the 1970s, there was a flipside of gloom, of insecurity, of a downward spiral to despair. Often, it feels like we’re watching two biopics at the same time, but both are handled with such confidence and skill that it’s rare for the viewer to be able to spot the join.
Director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall deploy a handy framing device by staging most of the film as flashbacks: Elton recounting his formative years, personal relationships and later wild antics while attending group therapy, dressed in an outlandish flame-red, sparkly jumpsuit. Each time the action returns to the confessional environment, it’s accompanied by the removal of a piece of the singer’s gaudy garb (the devil horns, the skull-hugging headpiece, the flamboyant feather wings), representing both a literal and metaphorical shedding of skin.
The oldest, and possibly most affecting, of those skins centres on the young Reg Dwight at the family home he shares with a cold, detached father (Steven Mackintosh), an initially encouraging but ultimately calculating mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and an eternally upbeat grandmother (Gemma Jones).
A prodigiously gifted pianist awarded a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, the boy is, like everyone under the roof of the Pinner semi, less than happy with his lot, as seen in the first of the movie’s many musical numbers, in which each member of the clan is shown singing lines from one of Elton’s later hits, I Want Love.
Soon after, a passage of time during which the boy becomes a man is covered by a fast-paced, fast-cut rendition of Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, complete with tightly choreographed fisticuffs and dance moves that recall more traditional musicals generally and Ken Russell’s vision of the Who’s Tommy in particular (a film, lest we forget, that featured a show-stopping turn by Elton himself).
A pivotal turning point comes when the adult Reg (Taron Egerton) meets lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) for the first time, sat in a coffee bar and bonding over a shared love of corny country-and-western songs. In many ways, Rocketman is as much a biopic of Taupin, and although we learn little about him outside of Elton’s orbit, the mutual affection and “bromance” between the two is never far from the pulse of the rest of the film.
That connection is beautifully observed in the glances they exchange, as Bernie watches Reg set the words of Your Song to music, an elegantly understated scene chronicling the creation of what was to be the pair’s first global hit; the calling card that sets the ball rolling. It’s the number that finally gets the attention of foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping music-biz mogul Dick James (a fun, if somewhat caricatured, cameo by Stephen Graham).
Elton John and Taron Egerton at the Cannes Film Festival
Then, we’re really off to the races with Elton’s headline-grabbing US debut at the Los Angeles Troubadour and subsequent ascent to rock’s A-list, assisted by montages of stack-heeled showmanship and crowd adulation to a soundtrack of an extraordinary run of hit songs. Carefully woven into the journey are the widening cracks in the singer’s psyche and his escalating lonely-at-the-top dependency on drink and drugs, powerfully conveyed by an actor on brilliant form.
Given that Fletcher was brought in to complete Bohemian Rhapsody (not to the mention the fact that Elton and Freddie Mercury were close friends whose stars shone simultaneously), it’s perhaps inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between Rocketman and the earlier movie, released just seven months ago. Rami Malek’s awards-laden portrayal was, undoubtedly, a tour de force in capturing the Queen singer’s mannerisms, but Egerton offers something much more substantial here.
At first humble and shy on a path towards spoilt arrogance, the 29-year-old inhabits Elton’s persona with equal measures of flair and subtlety. He’s blessed with a strong singing voice (which wisely never attempts to mimic the subject too forensically), but most impressive is his ability to leap from brat-like rage to frightened vulnerability in the space of a few seconds. When Elton comes out as gay to his mum and she tells him he’ll never be loved “properly”, the look on Egerton’s face will go breaking your heart.
In terms of a musical timeline, Rocketman has no qualms about indulging in a little surreptitious tweaking; not intended in any way to blur the order of events, but to allow isolated Taupin lyrics to illustrate and underscore what’s on screen. At the peak of Elton’s excesses, for instance, the wordsmith asks him, in song, “When are you going to come down? When are you going to land?” (the opening line to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road). It’s a short but powerful scene that, effortlessly, holds more truth than an entire Shaftesbury Avenue of crowd-pleasing jukebox musicals shoehorning hits into a box-ticking fiction.
It’s just one example of occasions where a carefully worded couplet fits the narrative so perfectly that it suggests the singer’s long-serving creative partner and friend was forever reaching out to the man in the spotlight, urging him to seek help and change his ways. Each handwritten sheet of A4 paper may have, primarily, been passed on to be given a melody, but often there’s the sense that it’s also a kind of Trojan horse, a device with which to communicate a fear or concern linked directly to Elton’s self-destructiveness.
While delivering its goods in a flashy manner befitting of its subject, Rocketman can’t help but adhere to biopic conventions at times, and the scenes of redemption in the film’s closing 20 minutes are a little too tidy in their taking-care-of business intent. Anyone who doesn’t predict the arrival of the end credits being accompanied by a defiant, celebratory rendition of I’m Still Standing clearly hasn’t been paying attention.
But the movie has to be admired for its no-holds-barred honesty, and the still-living Elton’s tacit endorsement of washing his dirty laundry in public. The lion’s share of credit for Rocketman’s triumphs rest squarely on the shoulders of Egerton, though; it’s hard to think of any actor who would have made a more convincing or sympathetic astronaut.