REVIEW – ‘Rocketman’ is everything a music biopic should be

After Bohemian Rhapsody fandangoed its way to a worldwide box office of $903 million (!) and four (!!) Academy Awards, the music biopic genre has found itself suddenly in fashion again. Arriving completely coincidently to take advantage of the public’s appetite for rock ‘n’ roll retrospectives, it’s impossible not to compare Rocketman to the Freddie Mercury biopic.

Both jukebox musicals feature a cinematic portrayal of the life and times of a flamboyant British musician from the 1970s/80s, infamous for their outlandish outfits, hugely successful music, and wild behaviour, fueled by sex, drugs and alcohol. The films even share a director in Dexter Fletcher, who was famously hired to complete Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer’s dismissal. After viewing Rocketman, you can’t help but wonder what the disappointingly generic Queen biopic may have looked like, had Fletcher been there from the start.

A movie musical in every sense of the word, Rocketman is a glitzy, fantastical, sequin-drenched spectacle, wisely juxtaposed by the bleak and destructive toll that comes from a life of unfettered excess. Refusing to shy away from the dark reality of Elton John’s rollercoaster ride to success, the film deftly captures both the dizzying highs and the devastating lows in the life of the man behind the soundtrack of our lives. It’s everything a music biopic should be, and then some.

Setting the tone right from the opening frames, we first catch sight of Elton John (a revelatory Taron Egerton) as he quite literally bursts into a rehab therapy session, dressed in an extravagant, bedazzled, orange stage outfit, complete with angels wings and devil horns. It’s the late 1980s, and Elton is finally ready to admit he has an addiction problem. Actually, several addiction problems. He’s an alcoholic, cocaine-loving, pill-popping, bulimic, sex addict, to be exact. Oh, and he also can’t stop shopping. Basically, he’s an out-of-control rockstar.

Somewhat bamboozled by their surprise new celebrity guest, the other members of the rehab meeting all attempt to help ascertain the roots of Elton’s demons, starting with the age-old question, “What were you like as a child, Elton?” As such, the meeting forms a framing device for the musician to relive his chaotic life, starting with a big musical production flashback (set to “The Bitch Is Back,” of course) to his childhood when Elton John was just an introverted young lad from Middlesex named Reginald Dwight (played by both Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor).

A piano prodigy from an early age, Reggie dreams of a life away from his cold, oppressive father (Steven Mackintosh) and boozy, self-obsessed mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, executing a perfect Cockney accent), and music just might be his meal ticket out of there. Encouraged by his caring grandmother (Gemma Jones), Reggie earns a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, but a love of rock ‘n’ roll soon leads him away from classical music and into playing with a rock group at the local pub.

After performing backup for a visiting American soul group and taking their advice to change his dull-sounding name, the newly monikered Elton John answers a newspaper advertisement seeking songwriters for Liberty Records, where he’s paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin (the ever-reliable Jamie Bell), creating one of the greatest songwriting duos in music history that’s still going strong to this day.

When Elton begins to take America by storm, courtesy of a now-legendary performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, he catches the eye of scrupulous music manager John Reid (Richard Madden), who soon becomes his secret lover and assumes control over Elton’s career, in a destructive one-sided relationship that will form the cornerstone of his devastating spiral into a life of addiction.

Dotted amongst this journey through Elton’s meteoric rise to fame and catastrophic fall from grace are a series of sublimely crafted musical numbers that run the entire gambit of his impressive back catalogue of hits. Some are presented as realistic recreations of Elton’s stage and studio performances, like his cute-as-a-button duet with Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon) on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” or a meticulous recreation of his “I’m Still Standing” music video on the sunny shores of Cannes.

Others are staged as elaborate fantasy sequences, like a big Broadway-style song-and-dance production of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” set at a local carnival and a heartbreaking rendition of “I Want Love,” performed by each member of Reggie’s family, giving this track entirely new power and meaning. And some blur the lines between both, like when Elton takes to Dodger Stadium to belt out “Rocket Man” before launching into the sky as a bursting firework or when he first performs “Crocodile Rock” at the Troubadour and both Elton and the adoring crowd start to levitate off the ground.

While there is some creative license used with the timeline of the placement of these songs (for example, “I Want Love” wasn’t written until 2001 but is performed during Elton’s childhood), Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall never lazily play with Elton’s catalogue for the mere sake of it. There is a consistent intention to the positioning of every track to synch with the narrative in wildly impressive ways, typified by the use of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” to mark Taupin’s crushing realisation the pair are heading in different directions. It’s this creative fusion of music and story that make this biopic something truly special. Rocketman is not just a lifeless recap of Elton’s music, instead utilising it to elaborate on the narrative of his life and desperate search for love.

After being abandoned by his father in favour of a shiny new family and cruelly told by his mother he’s choosing a lifestyle where no one will ever really love him, Elton’s crippling insecurities and daddy issues lead to a series of bad choices, particularly his disastrous relationship with Reid, which is all sorts of horrible. Delving deeply and earnestly into Elton’s sexuality (yes, there’s a somewhat restrained gay sex scene), Rocketman refuses to tone down this fundamental aspect of the singer’s life. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll are keenly on display here, and rightly so.

By his own frank admission, Elton has “fucked everything that moves” and “loved every moment of it,” marking a refreshing change from other biopics which downplay the less-than-positive characteristics of their protagonists. It’s not so debaucherous to be offputting to mainstream audiences, but it certainly makes Bohemian Rhapsody look rather childish by comparison in its portrayal of our protagonist’s homosexuality. Fletcher never shies away from highlighting Elton’s numerous flaws and weaknesses, crafting an honest piece that seeks to showcase how imperfect idols often are.

But the true love story here is ultimately between Elton and Bernie, two musical geniuses whose fateful meeting consequently created some of the greatest music the world has ever known. While Elton initially misreads Bernie’s fondness for him, in an awkward moment that becomes beautifully touching, their relationship is purely platonic and rooted in an innate ability to meld music and lyrics together in perfect harmony. Fletcher crafts their songwriting sessions as purely authentic, without the usual silly gimmicks music biopics exhaustingly vomit onto a screen. Bernie writes the words which Elton puts music to. They had that magic chemistry that just worked. Simple, effective, and exactly how it happened, often in mere minutes.

At the centre of Rocketman is a star-making and award-worthy turn from Egerton, who inhabits Elton John with endless commitment and boundless energy. While it would have been entirely easier for the actor to merely lip-sync along with Elton’s vocals, he performs every single track here, often sounding uncannily like the musician with his stellar singing abilities. But it’s Egerton’s capacity to capture both Elton’s outlandish on-stage persona and his debilitating self-esteem issues that make his deeply layered performance something truly breathtaking. Never once feeling like a caricature or impersonation of the vulnerable musician, Egerton completely disappears into this role, particularly in the deft ways he portrays Elton’s unique mannerisms and elocution. One can only hope the buzz can continue right into awards season and Egerton can deservedly nab his first Oscar nomination.

Surrounding Egerton is a terrific ensemble cast of supporting performances that further elevate our leading man. Bell is endlessly charming and warm as Elton’s closest ally and confidante. Taupin is the one figure in the rock star’s life who truly understands him, and it’s hardly surprising Elton’s life falls to pieces when Bernie exits stage left. Howard is both deliciously entertaining and nastily horrible as Elton’s selfish mother, who is lost with how to love a son she simply doesn’t understand. Madden exudes an unctuous allure to Reid that Elton simply can’t resist, but it’s quickly replaced by selfish exploitation, providing the film with the villain it absolutely requires.

If the soundtrack of Elton’s music provides joy for the ears, the dazzling costume designs of Julian Day are a veritable feast for the eyes. With meticulous recreations of many of Elton’s iconic outfits (the closing credits provide several side-by-side comparisons, which are downright stunning), the costumes add an additional layer of authenticity to Egerton’s performance to complement the stellar makeup and hairstyling, with Elton’s thinning hairline providing a running visual gag.

Combining all these elements is ringmaster Fletcher, whose musical sensibilities explode through every moment of this film. His keen eye for staging musical numbers is wonderfully impressive, and it’s clear he has a deep love for this style of filmmaking. He can’t help but avoid a few music biopic clichés which rear their ugly head from time to time, like when a foolish record executive rejects a series of John/Taupin creations that ultimately became huge hits. The narrative touches on Elton’s doomed marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker), but it’s sped through so quickly and barely explored, which is somewhat disappointing in a film that pulls few punches.

While paying deep tribute to the musical genius that is Elton John, Rocketman digs deeper into the darker elements of the life of a supremely talented but deeply flawed musician. Often his own worst enemy, Elton is a complicated mix of bravado and humility, offering Egerton the role of a lifetime, which he handles with impressive aplomb.

Both devastating and uplifting, Rocketman is a glorious experience and one of the best times you will have in a cinema this year. With a film every bit as flamboyant and wild as the man himself plus a hefty dose of heart and sincerity, you’ll be tapping your feet while wiping away a few tears. The bitch is indeed back and still standing better than he ever did.

Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Jason Pennycooke, Charlie Rowe, Gemma Jones
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Producers: Adam Bohling, David Furnish, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Lee Hall
Cinematography: George Richmond
Music: Matthew Margeson
Production Design: Marcus Rowland
Editor: Chris Dickens
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Date: 30th May 2019 (Australia)

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