Rocketman

 

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Taron Egerton brilliantly recreates Elton John in an old-fashioned musical fantasy of the singer’s life.

   

Rocketman

Breaking his heart: Rachel Muldoon (as Kiki Dee) and Taron Egerton 

 

Rocketman is not a biography of Kim Jong-un, but of the singer-composer Elton John. And, inevitably, comparisons will be made to the music biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Not least, one suspects, because Dexter Fletcher, the man at the helm of Rocketman, also directed 12.5 per cent of the former after its original director Bryan Singer was dismissed for absenteeism (among other things). In addition, Bohemian Rhapsody was made in collaboration with Queen, while Rocketman is very much the product of its subject, with Elton taking an executive producer credit. In fact, Elton even duets with Taron Egerton over the closing credits on a new song, ‘(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again’, which he penned with Bernie Taupin specially for the film.

 

Another unavoidable comparison is the John Lewis commercial aired at Christmas last year. The latter shows the singer at the piano playing ‘Your Song’ and then sweeps back in time until, as a little boy, Elton pulls back the wrapping paper concealing his very first piano. Of course, the full-length version of the singer’s life is by no means as sentimental – and he was never given a piano by his mother. In fact, his parents, played well by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh, gave little Reggie Dwight little but a determination to escape the loveless claustrophobia of his childhood.

 

Regardless of the talent involved, most mainstream movies are only as strong as the story they have to tell. The trajectory of Freddie Mercury’s life – as tweaked by that great storyteller Peter Morgan – was sensational, following his humble beginnings as a baggage handler at Heathrow to flamboyant gay icon rocking the world.

 

As scripted by Lee Hall, of Billy Elliot fame, Rocketman starts brilliantly. Elton John, dressed up as a Lucifer, complete with glued-on horns and fiery-red wings, stomps down a white corridor framed by celestial light. He then bursts into the serene setting of an AA meeting and demands, “How long is this going to take?” In the event, it takes the length of the film, as Elton regales his fellow addicts with his life story. So we cut to a virtually monochromatic suburban Pinner and Rocketman lurches into an old-fashioned musical with all-singing, all-dancing neighbours, milkmen, postmen…

 

The early scenes, with Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor as the young Reggie, are the most effective, as the boy’s natural talent as a pianist becomes apparent, first to Elton’s grandmother (Gemma Jones) and then to his tutor at the Royal Academy of Music (Harriet Walter). There’s nothing like a budding brand of prodigal genius to tug at the heartstrings.

 

And before the historians in the audience start bleating about the facts, ma’am, just the facts, Rocketman is a self-confessed fantasy of the singer’s life, “a fantasy based on reality based on fantasy,” to quote the film’s producer, Matthew Vaughn. And so Elton’s early life plays out like a traditional musical, with less-well-known songs like ‘I Want Love’ acting as an interior monologue for its characters. In this version, Elton’s childhood was an abomination, a catalyst for his yearning to be loved and to be recognised.

 

His friendship with the lyricist Bernie Taupin (beautifully played by Jamie Bell) and the pair’s flourishing success are also displayed with verve and imagination. But the chain of emotional highs judders to a halt when Elton succumbs to the lure of alcohol and cocaine and the films descends into a garish rock opera of excess. Here, the narrative arc loses its momentum and only the closing captions reassure as that Elton Hercules John is alive and well and has found true love with his husband David Furnish, another of the film’s producers.

 

Nonetheless, Taron Egerton is magnificent as Elton – and does all his own singing – and the dialogue sparkles (“You need to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the man you want to be”). The songs, too, aren’t half-bad.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Steven Mackintosh, Tate Donovan, Charlie Rowe, Tom Bennett, Matthew Illesley, Kit Connor, Harriet Walter, Ophelia Lovibond, Sharmina Harrower, Sharon D. Clarke, Jason Pennycooke, Rachel Muldoon.

 

Dir Dexter Fletcher, Pro Adam Bohling, David Furnish, David Reid and Matthew Vaughn, Ex Pro Elton John and Claudia Schiffer, Screenplay Lee Hall, Ph George Richmond, Pro Des Marcus Rowland, Ed Chris Dickens, Music Matthew Margeson, Costumes Julian Day.

 

New Republic Pictures/Marv Films/Rocket Pictures-Paramount Pictures.

121 mins. UK/USA. 2019. Rel: 22 May 2019. Cert. 15.