A career in pop music can be a turbulent one, and all too many artists are keen to acknowledge this fact. The latest to do so is a bespectacled pianist who rose to fame in the Seventies, lead a colourful lifestyle unlike any other, and tells of his experience in a manner that is equally lively, though not without its shortcomings.
Dressed head-to-toe in one of his outlandish costumes, Elton John (Taron Egerton) checks himself into a rehabilitation clinic, and immediately recounts his life to a room of fellow addicts. He begins by talking about his upbringing in suburban London – then known as Reggie Dwight, he lived with his parents Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) who are revealed to be cold, distant, and unable to show affection.
As a child, Reggie revealed himself to be a musical prodigy, able to perfectly recite tunes on the piano. With encouragement from his grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) and stepfather Fred (Tom Bennett), he decides to pursue a career in music, first by attending the Royal Academy of Music, and later by signing a record deal with legendary producer Dick James (Stephen Graham), during which time he changes his name to Elton John.
James’ company puts Elton in contact with another fresh artist hoping to make his mark, that being songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Within days of meeting each other, the pair are already firm friends and constantly writing songs together – Bernie by penning lyrics, and Elton by matching them to music. Their partnership results in numerous hit singles, not just in their home of England, but also across the Atlantic, where the Americans fall in love with Elton’s on-stage antics.
Rocketman is the latest addition to a growing list of biographical musicals, one which has the blessing of Elton John himself. Having a musician personally approve a biopic about their life is not unheard of – members of N.W.A. helped produced the blockbuster about their experiences, Straight Outta Compton, as did the surviving members of Queen for last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody – but such endorsement does raise questions as to how much creative control the real Elton John had over the film.
In the case of this latest film, Sir Elton has allowed an unfiltered examination of his life that candidly discusses the problems he faced, including alcoholism, drug addiction, and abuse at the hand of his manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), a character who also appeared in Bohemian Rhapsody. Another connection to that movie is director Dexter Fletcher, who oversaw post-production duties of the Queen biopic, yet assumes full duties over Rocketman.
Although there are plenty of comparisons to be made between the two movies, it must be stressed that Rocketman is a substantially different experience to Bohemian Rhapsody. One problem that loomed large over the latter project was the treatment of its main protagonist, Freddie Mercury, who passed away two decades before production began – he was made to appear selfish, promiscuous and perverted, which felt very much like a violation of his indelible legacy, made worse by his inability to defend himself.
Because of Elton John’s heavy involvement in the production of Rocketman, such an issue is not prevalent here; instead, viewers are comforted by the knowledge that the story has been endorsed by its living subject. Yet this is no watered-down retelling of John’s life, since the audience is treated to an open admission of his failings, and how he sought to overcome them. Such frankness and honesty make for a refreshing viewing experience, even if the final product indulges in some artistic liberties.
Unlike the two abovementioned biopics, which tell their stories in a conventional manner, Rocketman is more akin to a traditional musical, the kind where characters express their feelings through song and are accompanied by a troupe of backup dancers. It’s an approach that is not without its issues – for instance, the songs barely correlate with events on-screen, hence distracting from the plot – but the energy and vibrancy of this approach is entertaining, and appreciated, nonetheless.
Also worthy of appreciation is Taron Egerton who, despite his lack of a physical resemblance to Elton John, embodies the musician wholeheartedly. Egerton gives a very raw, compelling performance, but perhaps more impressive is that he sings all of Elton’s songs himself, rather than lip-syncing over recorded material, as was the case with Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody. Better still, Egerton’s vocals are most pleasing to the ear, suggesting this may not be the last time one hears him croon.
A flamboyant, intimate portrait of a personality like no other, Rocketman is the film Bohemian Rhapsody should have been, swears, drugs and all. The presence of Taron Egerton, and an unashamedly theatrical tone, are key to the movie’s success, which is partly spoilt by a disconnect between the songs and the plot.