By Kim Hughes
It’s fitting that a story based on the kaleidoscopic life of musician Elton John cloaks its narrative — which is trained on the musician’s early years and abiding parental issues — in epic swaths of surrealism and multiple show-stopping musical numbers. Rocketman is as fabulously mercurial and debauched as its subject; anything less would have been futile and disappointing.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher — the man who delivered Bohemian Rhapsody when Bryan Singer got the ax — Rocketman plays it straight-ish on table of events but eccentric in execution, like a juicy back issue of MOJO Magazine where everyone speaks candidly because it’s all water under the bridge. Fletcher situates John’s towering talent and equally towering substance abuse as the obvious outcome of an unhappy childhood deeply enmeshed with sexuality issues. No sadness, no hits… and probably no platform boots or extreme eyeglasses from the former Reginald Dwight of ho-hum Pinner, Middlesex. Wouldn’t that have been a shame?
But oh look at him now. We first encounter the adult Elton John (Taron Egerton, terrific not to mention pithy, convincing, and actually singing throughout) as he enters an AA meeting in an outlandish costume with a chip on his shoulder, apparently having just stepped off stage.
The meeting serves as the film’s anchor, from which it toggles back and forth, eventually delivering the sober, level-headed and securely gay Elton John of the present, who would go on to plaintively serenade dear, dead Princess Diana with a retrofitted “Candle in the Wind” as the entire planet watched and wept.
Rocketman doesn’t give us that wrenching scene; it ends circa 1983 with a recreated Cannes-based video of the song “I’m Still Standing,” thus depicting John’s ill-fated 1984 marriage to sound engineer Renate Blauel as long-since over. Inconsistencies notwithstanding, we get oodles of delicious bitch: manager/lover John Reid (Richard Madden) is positively scorched as a heartless, two-timing prick though he and Egerton give the movie a smoking-hot sex scene that may not be seen in China.
Little Reggie’s self-absorbed mom and disinterested dad (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) are also repeatedly thumped. Leave it to Elton John, he of the Tantrums and Tiaras so well-documented by his husband David Furnish’s doc, to even the score.
As might be expected, Elton John long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin (a doe-eyed Jamie Bell) comes off as the adult in the room, the one also dazzled by the bright lights of L.A. during the early 70s but whose devotion to the craft and to his singer brings him back to earth as John, increasingly rich, stoned, drunk, spendthrift and self-pitying, spirals ever-downward before finding redemption in sobriety.
Director Fletcher and writer Lee Hall leverage the grand, jaw-dropping aspects of John’s story for symbolism that is rich in visual payoff and emotional heft. Audiences aren’t just swayed by the music; they are literally raised off their feet. Ghosts from the past reappear stranded at the bottom of a swimming pool. The song “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is recast as a full-scale Bollywood-style song-and-dance number that is genuine exhilarating to experience.
In fact, it’s all evocative, thrilling stuff and even when the music doesn’t roll out in perfect chronology, it’s always in lockstep with whatever’s happening on screen. And of course, all of it is amazing from “Tiny Dancer” to “Your Song.” Elton John’s unabashedly colourful life got biopic it deserves.
Rocketman. Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Gemma Jones. Opens wide May 31.