Director Dexter Fletcher dishes out the narrative in Rocketman possibly in the way that the real Elton John reflects upon his past, arbitrarily recalling life moments through a hazy lens caused by years of inebriation. Memories and single releases are jumbled-up to suit the biopic's plot, a disregard for chronological order which will possibly aggravate the purist of fans, who are expecting some minute by minute account of the star’s life. We randomly get a few bars of Candle in The Wind (originally written in 1974 and re-released in 1997 to commerate Princess Diana's death) in the first ten minute when Elton is just a young boy playing on his Grandma’s piano in the 50s. For others, however, discovering that Elton John and David Furnish have had their hand at producing may leave a bitter after taste, conjuring up a much more well-mannered Elton John compared to the real-life tantrum prone persona we have to come know from the extensive media coverage of the past twenty, thirty years.
Starting off with what initially, from afar, resembles as a super-hero walking down a corridor, a sombre Elton John (played by Taron Egerton) gate-crashes an AA meeting decked out in full stage costume: a shiny orange jumpsuit complete with a sparkly horned head piece, glittery feathered wings and twelve-inch platform boots. We get the gist of proceedings, once he starts to reel off details of his youth to an unmoved, silent group of recovering addicts. A signifier of what’s to come; self-loathing, the incredible price of fame and a messy upbringing find solace in the trappings of addiction and carnal urges.
Through long flashbacks we witness the transformation from his humble working-class family home in Pinner, piano prodigy Reginal Dwight becomes the outrageous global music superstar Elton John, followed by the predictable self-gratifying, self-harming excesses and the parasitic hanger-ons that come part and parcel. Bryce Dallas Howard plays John’s emotionally unavailable mother Sheila Eileen, his cruel manager and lover John Reid is played by a dashing Richard Madden and his writing partner and life-long friend Bernie Taupin is played by Jamie Bell.
Egerton does a fine job playing Elton John. There are glaring differences in vocal tone and Egerton's more agreeable symmetrical facial features but overall there is a close resemblance. Egerton seems to fluctuate in size throughout, perhaps bulked by 70s cumbersome jackets or being most skinny in the throughs of John’s addiction and bulimia. He injects a certain aloofness, hinting at the real life John’s inability to emotionally connect with others. The lows are never quite that low and the highs never quite that high. The cataclysmic success that ascends upon him never feels earth-shatteringly exciting, the poignancy of parental rejection never feels heart-wrenchingly tragic, the love affair between him and Reid is rather limp and one-sided; granted Reid was a controlling, abusive and a money sucking leech, maybe an attractive proposition to someone vulnerable and insecure. It’s bizarre to discover that Reid carried on managing John up until 1999, way beyond this film’s remit and the appearance of life partner John Furnish.
There is also the commendable exploration of Elton John’s gayness in comparison to the straight washing of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, also semi-directed by Fletcher. Cutting through all the fun-fair there is an insightful look into John’s inner turmoil, coming to terms with his homosexuality, personally but also its possible negative effect on his career. Confusion and self-doubt abounds, whether it be the resonating harsh words of his mother ‘you will never be happy’ or the instuctions of some narrow-minded music exec, causing him to make the wrong life choices at every turn.
Going into Rocketman, admittedly I entered with a certain cynicism; another biopic of a musical icon, yet another misleadingly aspirational decadent depiction of the music industry circa 60s, 70s and 80s from the same director fresh off the heels of a suspcisiously similar biopic. But once you get past the initial cringe-worthiness of the bursting into song and dance, the elaborate setting and the ostentatiousness of John's existence aid in suspending disbelief, metamorphosing the viewing experience into an enjoyable colourful jaunt, with an infectious sing-a-long quality provided by the heart-warming familiarity and the pathos of Elton John’s songs.
Rocketman is out in cinemas today.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.
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