Going into Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, a movie telling the story of undeniable pop icon Elton John, I have to admit to being somewhat trepidatious. As Fletcher had been involved with the fine but sanitised and unchallenging Bohemian Rhapsody, that told the story of Freddie Mercury I will be honest and say I expected more of the same – while this wouldn’t have been a problem it would, ultimately, have been rather disappointing.
As soon as Taron Egerton stomps into an AA meeting in full Elton John stage regalia and reels off a laundry list of addictions and mental health issues though, it’s clear Rocketman is going in a rather different direction and isn’t shying away Elton’s personal issues.
Then, as we leap into a big song and dance number of The Bitch Is Back as sung by a young Elton (Matthew Illesley) and his neighbours it’s clear this is also going to be something stylistically very different as well.
In the early scenes with the younger actors this is brilliantly handled in a visual and musical montage style (highlighted by a spectacular Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting) as we see John’s young life as his family falls apart in, for the 1950s, unconventional ways, while he discovers the piano and begins to make inroads with that.
It’s when we get to Egerton appearing as the then Reg Dwight in his late teens that things really get going though and never let up. From there the film charts his first forays into being a session musician, meeting longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and his first visit to America with the famous gigs at Doug Weston’s Troubadour in LA.
The Troubadour scene is another highlight as it manages to capture, visually, the feeling of a really transporting live music experience fantastically and with real vibrancy.
From there the drama really cranks up as you’d expect and throughout Egerton is fantastic as John. It’s fair to say he doesn’t look that much like the real person but with the range of spectacular costumes (and specs) and some great acting this doesn’t matter as he is entirely believable in the role.
Added to this is his vocal performance on the musical side.
It might have been easier to have him lip-synch along to the original tracks but instead it’s clear it’s Egerton’s own voice, just doing an approximation of John’s mid-Atlantic twang, and this makes the whole thing feel far more complete and connected – and to be honest, he does a great job of singing the songs (so much so the song over the closing credits is a new duet between him and the actual Elton).
The musical format also allows for a far more satisfying exploration of some of the more potentially challenging aspects of John’s life than we got of Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.
This is particularly evidenced in the sequence based around the title song and a later one that explores his early 80s hedonism brilliantly, both making their points without being either over-graphic or on the nose and adding that depth that seemed lacking in the other movie.
As the film comes full circle with John in rehab (I really hope he did first turn up there in full stage dress, though its generally clear the truth isn’t getting in the way of a good story here) and a great recreation of the I’m Still Standing music video, Rocketman is a terrific film that manages to be a celebration of the man and his life without shying away from his undeniably challenging excesses.
Of course being a production endorsed by John it does ultimately paint him in a positive light while not being particularly kind about some characters, particularly his parents (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) and his former manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden), and a few captions ahead of the credits leave it on a bit of a cringe-y note but really that’s a minor thing after such an enjoyable and well done preceding two hours.