UK Release Date: 22nd May 2019
Runtime: 121 minutes
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Writer: Lee Hall
Starring: Taron Egerton, Richard Madden, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Steven Mackintosh
Synopsis: The story of pop icon Elton John, from his humble roots growing up in working class Britain to becoming one of the most successful recording artists of all time.
In order to talk about Rocketman, we need to talk about Bohemian Rhapsody. Let’s mention that particular elephant in the room quickly, before it starts stomping around the room with a Best Editing Oscar in its trunk. Rocketman is a completely different film to Bohemian Rhapsody, despite the fact they share the influence of Dexter Fletcher behind the camera. This movie is a musical in every sense, with lashings of fantasy, while last year’s Freddie Mercury biopic was a far more conventional tale.
Got that? Good. Let’s actually review the film.
It’s clear from the first moments of Rocketman that Fletcher is painting with an unconventional set of brushes here. We meet Elton John (Taron Egerton), dressed in full, lurid stage gear – half devil, half phoenix. He shambles in to an AA meeting that is almost certainly in his head and tells them his life story, from growing up in a London council house to his enduring songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Meanwhile, the spectre of drink and drugs is a constant, growing threat.
The early stages of the movie are an absolute delight, with Fletcher bringing about the same joy he brought to the considerably more low-key Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith. ‘The Bitch is Back’ channels the anger and rage of Reggie Dwight’s washed-out childhood, while ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ uses bravura long takes and a sweeping camera to shift the action from the younger Elton to Egerton’s cocksure, swaggering proto-star.
The Kingsman star grabs this role – the stuff of an actor’s dreams – by the scruff of the neck and gives it absolutely everything. His vocals are on point and he perfectly channels the arrogance and hubris of someone whose talent has carried him to the top, without any time to pause and take stock of how best to use the platform and power his money affords him. Egerton’s unique charisma is a perfect fit for this and there’s a real joy to watching him throw himself, full-bore into embodying a complex musical legend.
Unfortunately, the cast around him is a bit of a mixed bag. Richard Madden is saddled with a strange and under-written role as Elton’s manager/lover John Reid. He’s immediately outrageously flirty and the hot and heavy sexual chemistry between him and Egerton works, but the character turns on his axis at the midpoint of the movie without any sort of explanation and Madden struggles to make this shift feel organic. Bryce Dallas Howard, too, feels miscast as Elton’s crass, often unsupportive mother. Jamie Bell fares better as Taupin and Stephen Graham is reliably brilliant in a sweary, scenery-chewing turn as a record label exec.
The muddled and variable cast is perhaps a metaphor for the movie as a whole. Its first act passes in a kaleidoscopic blur, powered by some of John’s most uplifting and engaging hits. The second half of the movie, meanwhile, suffers as some of the more dramatic swings taken by Fletcher and writer Lee Hall turn out to miss the mark. For every musical sequence that is a triumph of wild invention – the stripped-down ‘Your Song’, Elton levitating while performing ‘Crocodile Rock’ – there’s one that falls flat on its face – a restaurant of grim-looking poshos droning through ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’, the time and space chaos of an over-cranked ‘Pinball Wizard’.
Fortunately for the film, the songs are bulletproof and there’s not much of a limit to Fletcher’s willingness to try something different at every possible opportunity. This isn’t a sanitised, four quadrant biopic. It’s a movie with a foul mouth, a taste for the audacious and a willingness to spend five minutes in the midst of dozens of writhing, semi-naked bodies. It’s as brave and bizarre as it is magnificent and occasionally misjudged, amounting to something that’s a bumpy ride, but one that occasionally crackles with undeniable electricity.
Pop or Poop?
Taron Egerton delivers the performance of his life in Dexter Fletcher’s wild, unruly Rocketman. The Elton John story gets an impressionistic, colourful flavour in a movie that is admirably willing to push the limits of what a biopic can be.
Not everything about the movie works, and some of its biggest swings fail to bear fruit but, when it’s at its best, this is a memorable slice of fantasy that benefits from one of the strongest songbooks in pop music history.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.