Taron Egerton stars as Elton John in Rocketman – and here’s our review.
Earlier this year, there was an advanced press junket for Rocketman, the new biopic that tells the life story of Elton John, or at least a generous chunk of it. And around said junket, there was tittle tattle: the film was in trouble! Footage wasn’t being shown, director Dexter Fletcher wasn’t doing interviews (although he did), and expectations were being dampened.
Well, humbug. For as it turns out, the film has ambition painted all over it. It makes bold choices, takes risks, and is comfortably the best mainstream musical biopic in recent years. And it’s hard to imagine Dexter Fletcher and his team being anywhere else but slavishly crafting over getting this right.
The film, penned by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall, primarily settles on a flashback mechanic to tell its story. Thus, we’re introduced at the start of the movie to Taron Egerton as Elton John, crashing into a support group, and beginning to tell his story. That of, initially, a young boy with little connection to his father, and a quickly obvious talent for music.
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The film goes through the well-trodden path of the music rise and fall story. But then it seems to reason that most people who watch Rocketman will know the guts of the tale, and thus the trick is in the telling. And boy, is it told well. Hall’s script, and director Dexter Fletcher, unpredictably opt for a heightened fantasy tale, liberally using Elton John’s songbook, but only occasionally driving by being a jukebox musical. Songs are used primarily to push the narrative (often quite fast), that occasionally loses a footing of just where you are in time. This isn’t a film with captions on the screen to signpost things. But by surgically using particular extracts of songs, the narrative powers forward. In fact, the film has a huge burst of momentum up until around the half-way point, where demons begin to take control and it slightly tempers it pace. And then, firmly eschewing the requirement for a 12A certificate, Rocketman is willing to address those demons. It’s still a mainstream blockbuster, certainly, but within those parameters, there’s a real sense that Rocketman is being bold, and taking definite risks.
Going deliberately vague so as not to spoil anything, there are moments that start out as fairly conventionally shot scenes, that suddenly spill off into musical numbers, and then off in another direction. Scenes, in fact, change into something else with barely a cut in sight, whilst when the editing is employed, it’s brisk, tight and keeps things relatively trim. Rocketman’s two hour running time absolutely flies by.
Performance-wise, it’d be remiss to not flag the brilliant Stephen Graham, who gets an early small role where he seems to be channeling a bit of Mark Wahlberg from The Departed, stealing any scene he’s let near. Richard Madden is suitably boo-hiss and strong as John Reid, a pivotal character in Elton John’s life, who doesn’t get too much screen time. Jamie Bell, as Bernie Taupin, gets a little more, and is one of the beating hearts of the film.
But the centre of it is Taron Egerton’s committed, strong central performance. It’s a career high for him, whether belting out a tune (he sings all the songs himself) or going far more contained for some of the film’s harsher, tougher moments. Sure, there’s an argument that the film could have gone even darker than it does, but Egerton’s investment in his performance is richly rewarded, and impressive in its range. It’s some piece of work.
As is the work of director Dexter Fletcher. He’s not new to musically-driven movies, because good lord, the thoroughly lovely Sunshine On Leith deserves more eyeballs on it. But this is ambitious work. It’s a musical at heart, and he’s utterly committed to that, with sequences that erupt off the screen. But there’s a tenderness and humanity to his direction too, that we saw large swatches of in Eddie The Eagle. Here, he’s getting even better.
There are a few issues. The film is pacey and never less than interesting, but in keeping its momentum, there are details lost. Quite why Elton John’s relationship with his dad was so fragmented, for instance, leaves us with questions (but then maybe it leaves him with questions too), and likewise the swift passage of time in the movie results in some gaps that it would’ve been interesting to see filled. Bits are a little on the nose too, and as much as it’s delving into the darker areas of Elton John’s life, it still feels like there’s a line. Likewise, a punch the air finale is sacrificed just a little in favour of some cards bringing the story up to date. It felt like the air was just let out just a tad there.
Yet Rocketman, I’d argue, is really something. The weaving in of the music (and credit to Matthew Margeson’s score, too) is impressive, and the fact that it balances being both conventional and flat-out bonkers in the same two hours is something to cherish. What’s more, it’s gratifyingly going against grain of big movies such as this, actually taking risks, going off on fantastical flights of fancy, and managing to move and entertain. Granted, if the Elton John songbook leaves you cold, you’re going to struggle a bit. Truth be told, though, I bloody loved it.