Film review, by Jason Day, of Rocketman, the musical biopic of the rise to stardom of singer Elton John and his near fall from grace following addiction problems. Starring Taron Egerton and Jamie Bell.
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Pop superstar Elton John (Taron Egerton) rocks up at a rehab meeting in full, roaring, gorgeous 1970’s stadium-pleasing costume when – so he says – his drug dealer was out of town and he was at a loose end. He relates the story of his life, at home as the boy called Reginald Dwight in 1950’s Pinner Hill Road with his bored, disapproving mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and sweet, encouraging Nan (Gemma Jones). His frequently absent RAF father (Steven Macintosh) returns home, a boring and emotionally neglectful man.
Despite feelings of detachment from his family and a longing to be really loved, young Reg has an obvious talent for music and his piano playing skills see him start out on the music career – with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) that will earn him a lot of money, adulation and turn him into Elton John…and nearly life-threatening addictions to alcohol and a variety of narcotics and prescription drugs.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother?Bryce Dallas Howard as Sheila, Elton John’s mother, as quoted in the film Rocketman (2019).
I’ve always reviewed biopics produced when the main subject is still alive and kicking with a note of caution.
After all, no matter how warts and all they claim to be, with the possibility of legal action ever present, none can ever claim to be truly honest.
Commendably, Rocketman wears its heart on its kaleidoscopic sleeves, being surprisingly candid as it chronicles Elton’s phenomenal and rapid rise from pub singer to a superstar who easily sells out Madison Gardens and the Albert Hall.
But even Elton has admitted that the final version of Rocketman hardly touches the sides of the excesses of this early period of his fame. Part of the problem I have with Rocketman is not that it isn’t a good film – it is a very good film – but that it doesn’t go far enough.
This could be for simple economic reasons. The film carries a 15 rating with the BBFC and, the lower the rating, the more bums you get on multiplex seats and the more cash flows in.
It could also be because of the restrictions of cinema. Editing and scripting allow us to fly through months, years, decades of someone’s life in just a short number of scenes. But here, I felt that Elton’s years in the addiction wilderness were reduced to a mere May-December ‘blipping out’ period.
David Furnish – Elton’s husband and co-father of their two young children – is one of the credited producers, so those ‘bias’ alarm bells were ringing. It made me think that the rug may have been pulled on those more excessive moments of Elton’s career and we have been given an overly sympathetic treatment of the leading light.
This feeling is compounded by the film’s emphasis on Elton’s emotionally cold childhood. The first-person narrative that the film employs ensures that all of the events in the subject’s life are seen through his eyes of his personal analysis as to how family and friends would view him.
But to construct a narrative around the recollections of a boy – continued, added to, perhaps exaggerated – over the next 50 or so year of his life, lends a very biased slant to the story.
Yes I accept this is the story of Elton John, but what of his father and mother? What of their take on his ‘loveless family’ claims – with this movie, I only have his version of events which are presented as fact.
The film was produced after both are out of the way and cannot issue rebuttal statements – nice and safe, but I sat throughout the film screaming inside that I was being seduced into thinking positively about the main character when I needed more balance.
The framing device of the rehab/AA sessions – in which the other attendees appear irked about having their ears chewed off by this new, selfish member and their solipsism – though initially attention grabbing swiftly descends into Oprah Winfrey/love yourself first and foremost navel gazing. It becomes a narrative sticking point.
To end with the older Elton hugging his childhood self (the one thing their father never gave them) should have emotional wallop. I know from reading Elton’s own article about his emotionally damaging youth how heart-wrenching this was, but the mawkishness of this scene made me cringe inside.
Now, let’s step away from the negatives and crack on with the great things about this movie, that I really liked and admired.
Who would have thought that the director of a visually and cinematically successfully piece would be Dexter Fletcher, whom I will always associate with the leading actor of the 90’s Brit-kids TV series Press Gang?
Fletcher started his career as a child actor (his big claim to fame is starring opposite Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins in The Bounty, 1984) but has specialised in directing for nearly a decade.
His hits include Sunshine on Leith (2013) and the sports underdog film Eddie the Eagle (2016) which also starred Taron Egerton in the title role. He was also a luckily available replacement for scandal-ridden Bryan Singer when that man dropped out of helming Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), but which saw Rami Malek scoop this year’s Best Actor Oscar.
He creates some compelling, eye-pleasing moments. The dance-off outside Elton’s Pinner Street home, in which the young Elton is seen crisp and bright compared to the bleached, drab, post-WWII colours of his neighbours.
Later, Elton is one of the biggest music acts in the world and his family visit his multi million dollar mansion in Hollywood. High on prescription drugs, he attempts suicide by jumping into the pool and sinks toward his younger self, playing one of his hits on the piano, the light filtering like laser beams around them.
Thanks to such stunning visuals, it’s fair to surmise that his stock in Hollywood will only rise with this vibrantly designed and impeccably acted picture.
Egerton is the British movie man of the moment and Rocketman will only cement his status as a fantastic performer. No one with any sense would say that he does not completely, wholly compel as Elton John. He is Elton. He sings in his own voice (fantastic!), he struts as you recall Elton would strut, he feels – as much as the cinema can convey this – as Elton would feel.
It is a shame for him that Bohemian Rhapsody scored so strongly across cinemas and movie award ceremonies last year and to this day as this could impact on his own professional recognition in the next 12 months.
All of the support performer score, but of the best: Jamie Bell is a sensitive Bernie Taupin, Elton’s key lyricist for most of his career but who does not shirk from tactfully putting the star in his place. Stephen Graham as a foul-mouthed music company boss, Gemma Jones as Elton’s sweet and encouraging Nan and best of all, Richard Madden as Elton’s vicious gay music manager John Reid.
Cast & credits
Director: Dexter Fletcher. 2hrs 1 min/121mins. Marv Films/Marv Studios/New Republic Pictures/Paramount/Pixoloid Studios/Rocket Pictures. (15)
Producers: Adam Bohling, David Furnish, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn.
Writer: Lee Hall.
Camera: George Richmond.
Music: Matthew Margeson.
Sets: Peter Francis, Marcus Rowland.
Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Gemma Jones, Steven Macintosh, Tom Bennett, Matthew Illesley, Kit Connot, Charlie Rowe, Tate Donovan, Stephen Graham, Leigh Francis.