Dir: Dexter Fletcher
Specs & Drugs & Rock & Roll
It’s like buses. You wait ages for a musical biopic of a prodigiously talented, flamboyant musical icon who peaked in the seventies …and then two come along at once. Well, within six months anyway. And directed by the very same Dexter Fletcher, who stepped in to successfully land Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) once Bryan Singer was unceremoniously ejected from that project. So Fletcher is turning out to be the J.J. Abrams of the new wave of musicals, Abrams being responsible for rebooting both Star Wars and Star Trek, franchises that had previously felt like opposing forces. Not that Queen and Elton John have ever felt oppositional. Turns out their film adaptations do take markedly different approaches though.
BoRhap was a near-cartoonish amplification of Queen’s ascent, and the impact on its trail-blazing frontman. Perhaps a little too keen to protect the reputation of the adored but departed, it airbrushed out the grittier details, satisfying a wide-appeal 12A into the bargain. Rocketman doesn’t have to worry about such sensitivities, having full authority from the subject to reveal warts ‘n’ all in full detail. The warts in question being an early life of relentless alcohol and substance abuse. So it proudly sports a 15 rating on its feathered sleeve. Yet it still maintains the feel of a toe-tapping musical for the whole family. Or perhaps it reflects a maturing of the general audience that the explicit excesses of rock ’n’ roll no longer count as controversial. This is its core originality: to cover such adult themes within such a mainstream package. It’s the more satisfying of the two films too, being both closer to the facts, and jamming in oodles of Broadway-style razzamatazz. But it won’t match the runaway success of Rhapsody, very few acts having the global pulling power of Queen’s legacy.
Using Elton’s long-overdue, final admission that he is an alcoholic as its launch pad, it charts his early trajectory through extended flashbacks. We see a loving upbringing soured by a difficult relationship with Dad, his musical awakening, meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (a pony-tailed Jamie Bell), the rise to mega-stardom that inevitably followed …and the descent into drug-fuelled self-loathing that went with it.
The soaring triumph of the film rests squarely on Taron Egerton’s shoulders. His central performance may prove to be career defining. He nails John’s mannerisms, always keeps touch with the ‘ordinariness’ of one Reg Dwight from Pinner, and submits a hugely impressive singing and dancing turn. It’s the hardest of things to achieve, but you do momentarily forget you’re watching a portrayal. As part of the publicity Elton was quoted as saying, “I don’t see Taron, I see myself”, and, while we tut, thinking, “of course he’s going to say that, it’s great PR!”, I have to report that, in brief moments, it’s true.
Oh, and then there’s the songs. ‘Rocketman’ itself is a tune so strong it has the lasting-power to span generations. With that as the centrepiece, his songbook is rejuvenated via stripped back, symphonic or pulse-pounding versions. Unlike some other jukebox musicals, there doesn’t need to be that much bending of ‘the truth’ to shoehorn in the hits either. The direct links between the highs of his repertoire and the lows of his personal life are clearly spelled out here like never before.
During the early credits, the executive production nod (to the man himself, with husband David Furnish) does remind you that, ultimately, this is a promotional vanity project. Which does tarnish the sparkle a touch, just at the point when you’re basking in the glow of a thoroughly entertaining two hours. In this light, to then shout about how much the reformed John has given to charity is a virtue-signalling step too far, and only alienates.
It’s a shame it ends on its only misstep. But it’s not enough to diminish a sharp, self-deprecating, bombastic update of a stellar talent’s catalogue for a new audience. This is a fantastically enjoyable showstopper counteracting true-life hurt with overblown pomp and melody. Together with its mercurial rival, it cements the pop biopic as the freshest, most invigorating genre of the moment.
★ ★ ★ ★ ½