Elton John is one of the world’s most famous rock stars and this authorised account of the singer’s life and career (with Elton and his husband, David Furnish, serving as executive producer and producer, respectively) begins on the usual biopic trope of the comeback concert, but immediately takes an intriguing turn as the narrative style weaves an inventive path with the equally standard flashbacks.
Rocketman wears its themes (the need for love, self-acceptance) on its attractively garish sleeve like the lyrics of a Taupin/John song, and that’s no denigration as the film is exciting and emotional from start to end. It shuffles both time, story and songs like a Spotify playlist, and works all the better for it, allowing the visuals and the many well-loved songs to tell much of the story, instead of the usual, oftentimes trite biopic dialogue.
And in speaking of trite dialogue, it’s worth mentioning the similarities between this film and 2019’s other big rock biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody: iconic gay rock stars who emerge, chrysalis-like from ‘umble, workin’ class backgrounds to become hedonistic stars of the 1970s and facing the challenges of falls from grace before life-affirming, triumphal returns to public and creative favour, despite the pitfalls of predatory rock and roll managers and all manner of troubled love lives. Plus of course, both were directed by Dexter Fletcher. Mostly anyway.
There is a world of difference between Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody, which Fletcher came onboard to complete after the removal/departure of original director, Bryan Singer. That film felt felt like the compromised vision it was in every sense of the word (and featured some of the most atrocious editing seen in a major feature since, well, probably one of the last Transformers movies).
Rocketman instead feels like the work of a more singular voice, one with a vibrant visual flair. I don’t know whether Fletcher was deliberately referencing the late British bad boy auteur, Ken Russell (which would be apt considering the links between Russell and Elton John), but his direction here is frequently redolent of the great man’s work – inventive, bombastic and florid, but capable of finding the quieter, emotional moments.
One of the big draws to the story here is the love and friendship between John and long- time lyricist, Bernie Taupin (a winning performance from the always reliable Jamie Bell). Brave enough to show much of their relationship as unrequited love on Elton’s behalf, including a lovely sequence set to Tiny Dancer (which still doesn’t transcend the song’s sublime use in Almost Famous, but comes close) and a scene where the singer finishes composing Your Song as a ballad to his friend was beautifully direct. A tear or two may have been shed.
It was also good to see Elton’s sex-life not shied away from, though I’m sure many would suggest it didn’t go far enough (an element I feel sure Russell would have insisted on handling more boldly).
But the whirlwind, jukebox tour of Elton’s life comes at a cost. Despite the hugely impressive performance by Taron Egerton (and it really is superb), we never quite seem to reach deep enough beneath his skin to make the part fully resonate. Although, for example, the script and performance show a kindness towards his ill-fated marriage to Renate Blauel, we’re never allowed to truly feel the indignity such a union must have been for both of them. So although the film excels at showing us why Elton is such a highly regarded artist, it doesn’t succeed so fully in showing us the man behind the artistry.
I was happy the film didn’t fall back on giving us a huge, uplifting comeback finale (that comes a little earlier, with the recreation of the I’m Still Standing video) of the dishonest kind provided by the Queen film, but I suspect many would have left the cinema waiting for that last, big triumphant number.
On that note however, I side with Fletcher, who’s penning a smarter tune here than on the film he was brought in to rescue, and leaves us with a more satisfying and engaging production, despite its flaws.
And while you might leave the cinema still not fully knowing the man behind the spectacles and wondering if Elton had any fun at all after his initial rise to fame, the fantastical, fantasy sequences and greater visual fluency makes this film the clear winner of the 2019 Dexter Fletcher musical biopics.