Elton’s biopic is fun, camp and honest, writes Cameron Bayley.
As the second true-life story of an out music icon from the ’70 and ’80s to be released within a year, comparisons between Rocketman and the hugely successful Bohemian Rhapsody are inevitable. And, in a nutshell, this is the one that does so with gay abandon (pun intended).
Right from the opening shot of Elton John (Taron Egerton) dressed as a sequined devil, it’s a playful, thoughtful, silly, sexy and moving telling of the musician’s life. Directed by Dexter Fletcher, Rocketman is camp, theatrical and frenetic – which, when you think about it, is perfect for capturing the rise-to-fame of the music icon synonymous with OTT sunglasses and a penchant for shopping. (They should inscribe the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical already.)
It happily plays with the conventions of the traditional on-screen portrait – and moves into jukebox musical territory with various characters bursting into one of John’s tunes. Never fear, though. Unlike so many in that particular stage genre, which shoehorn songs to fit a particular narrative, the songs in Rocketman are the narrative – we see where the grunt behind Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting) emerged from, or how the melancholy of Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word was honed.
And the role fits Egerton like a rhinestrone-studded glove. He brings a cheeky-chappie energy to John, but also lets us know there’s more happening under the surface. And he does a fine job of singing – the film’s USP is that he did his own tracks (while Rami Malek’s Freddie was a combination of himself, Mercury and Marc Martel). At times he gets the intonation of John so right that it’s uncanny.
He also throws himself into the platforms and outlandish outfits with gusto, and gives us full party-boy-gone-bad, and ensuring John’s sexuality is front and centre… and fabulous. A lot has been said about the gay sex scene in the film, and while he and co-star Richard Madden (as John’s record producer John Reid) do have a tender – and hot – moment, it’s all too brief, despite the headlines. Yet again, man-on-man love still seems a tad too much for mainstream biopics.
Sharing real chemistry with his leading man, The Bodyguard’s Madden forms part of a terrific supporting ensemble, including Jamie Bell as John’s long-time writing partner Bernie Taupin, and Bryce Dallas Howard (a surprising casting choice) who holds her scenes well.
But the real stars of the show are the songs, and we’re treated to plenty of great numbers from those already mentioned to the title song, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Tiny Dancer and Your Song.
Of course, it’s not all glitter cannons and heart-shaped specs – the writing is at times clunky and obvious (“People don’t pay to see Reg Dwight they pay to see Elton John!”) and some of those portrayed, like Madden’s Reid, are less fleshed out than they could be. So we get Distant Father, Bad Record Company Guy, etc. And the revved-up pace doesn’t allow too much of a deep dive (his 1987 marriage to Renate Blauel is acknowledged but not explored).
Yet, like all good pop songs, Rocketman is so enjoyable that you barely notice its shortcomings. Elton John, like Freddie Mercury, rose to fame through giving the music world a platform-booted kick up the derriere. This film has just as much fun. Five stars!