Based On A True Fantasy
The story opens in the early 80s with Elton John [Egerton] checking himself into rehab and regaling the story of young Reggie Dwight to fellow addicts. He recounts being able to play music by ear from a very early age but that his abilities as a musical prodigy were never really supported by his mother [Howard] or father [Steven Mackintosh]. As he grew up, he played backing piano for a few American soul bands on tour but was unable to really write his own music due to an inability to pen lyrics. Bucking up the courage to approach a label, Dwight adopts the new name Elton John and is paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin [Bell] and the two churn out hit after hit. Shortly after this, John comes out to Bernie but is saddened when Bernie does not reciprocate. Despite this initial friction, the two are sent to America and John’s career takes off.
The initial teaser trailer for Rocketman closed with the poster tagline: based on a true fantasy. A lot of these liners tend to boil down to fairly unimaginative marketing but there is an air of accuracy to this statement because while the narrative follows the extremely tired, standard biopic structure, it is only part biopic, with the other part being a musical. In truth, we’ve heard this story a thousand times but this shift in perspective and making the music a reflective expression of the subject’s life works wonders and reinvigorates what could have been a rather dreary paint-by-numbers affair. The overall tone is therefore both extravagant and lavish as well as quite isolated and simple, giving us something relatively unique. Furthermore, the choice to avoid a family friendly PG-13/12a rating was a smart move, allowing the script and performances to actively address the drinking, drugs and sex without resorting to mere coy implication. Having said that, nothing is ever too graphic, choosing instead to lean in to the theatricality of the musical element and producing a trippy, heightened vibe that thankfully never feels out of place. Admittedly, those looking for a straightforward narrative will likely find this jarring and if you’re not sold by the end of the opening sequence, this film makes few attempts to ease or placate.
Like many biographical pieces, this is a long film, running at just over two hours but the pacing works extremely well partly because the cinematography, editing and time-skipping transitions are all perfectly in-line with the manic theatrical format. Which is a decision I can only assume was Fletcher’s but even if it wasn’t, his direction is simply superb; fresh, flamboyant and confident, it’s clear this man has a real handle on the medium and deserves plenty of opportunities to flex these muscles. As a side point, there remains a great debate over how much of Bohemian Rhapsody was actually directed by Bryan Singer but while Fletcher may have been called in to capture two weeks of footage to save that feature, when working from start-to-finish, he really proves that he would have made a substantially better release of Mercury’s story than what we ended up with. But I digress.
The respective hair, costume, make-up and production design teams have worked absolute miracles recreating Elton’s evolving wardrobe and look, gleefully running side-by-side comparisons during the credit sequence to highlight the absurdity of what Elton John was getting away with on stage and the painstaking accuracy and attention to detail involved in recreating it all. But none of that would have gotten the film anywhere without an extremely charismatic lead. Cue Taron Edgerton. Initially one may assume “the kid from Kingsman” is an unusual choice but he embodies John with supreme ease, capturing the rage, the insecurities and the raw, frustrated talent skilfully (also, he kind of had a bit of a dry-run audition in Sing albeit in gorilla form). He carries himself well singing Elton’s biggest hits and though his voice isn’t exactly the same, his twist on the tracks is a welcome treat. To my mind, one of the key accomplishments here is managing to carrying the pageantry of this tragicomedy without tilting too far into eye-rolling melodrama or irreverent farce, which would have been so very easy for a lesser-skilled actor.
With this kind of genre piece, the supporting roles are always a bit of a mixed bag, especially when central performance is such a strong, attention-pulling lead character. Few are particularly standout and even fewer drag the film down with their miscasting or capability. From Elton’s childhood we have some interesting players: Howard is cold and unrelenting in her dismissal of her son, as is Mackintosh as John’s father but they never get to scene-stealing territory or disappointing to the point of distraction. There’s nothing especially vindictive or malicious about them, they’re simply not supportive. But in a way, this makes them all the more relatable for an audience, neither of them beat or neglected Elton (not by the conventions of the period) but they are spiteful in their dismissal of him and that is something that cuts surprisingly deep. If anything, the film’s real villain is Elton’s producer John Reid [Madden] who is controlling and disrespectful – but whether it was Madden’s performance or the naivety of the lead character, there was no twist here, no sign that Reid ever really had Elton’s interests at heart outside of personal gain. He was simply played as a fairly sneering, calculating individual and there was never any doubt that it wouldn’t all end up unpleasantly.
I can’t really comment on the events of Elton John’s real life but this kind of film, released with the blessing and involvement of the man himself while he’s still alive and unafraid of airing undesirable truths, is an incredibly positive move to transparency. As an artist, he owes the public nothing but offering up something that is wall-to-wall swearing and avarice to highlight what the life is like without veering into an overly romanticised fantasy is commendable and something that should be imitated. All we need now is to figure out a way to illustrate the hazards of music and stardom without the copy and paste linear structure, although Rocketman comes damned close.
24th May 2019
The Scene To Look Out For:
The standard biopic trope is to build to some formative concert or tour but in a perfect example of this film both bucking the trend and indulging in the formula, the bookend scenes culminate to a recreation of the music video for I’m Still Standing. It’s an interesting choice and effectively acts in the same way as the big final number but with everything that has been shown on screen for the previous two hours, the lyrics resonate rather well.
Again, another example of the film getting it perfectly right and curiously misfiring is Jamie Bell. Bell is great in this movie and presents a nice parallel to Elton’s extravagance and self destruction but he is also the man behind the words of the songs that people know. Sure, this is Rocketman, story of the man behind the piano, lost in a world of addiction and debauchery but he’s arguably only one half of the puzzle. Taupin is so very overlooked by this movie that it’s almost obtuse using the lyrics to illustrate parts of John’s life – which I appreciate is in direct contrast to what I wrote not one paragraph prior.
“You’ve gotta kill the man you were born to be, to become the person you want to be”
In A Few Words:
“Covering the excess, the drama and the songs in a unique way, Rocketman is everything Bohemian Rhapsody wishes it could be”