As delightful as all other areas of the film are, they really serve as the kindling for the burning fire that is Egerton as Elton John.
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden and Bryce Dallas Howard
Even before the two films were released, comparisons were being drawn between Rocketman, which explores the life of Elton John, and Bohemian Rhapsody concerning the band Queen. Both of them, arguably, concerning two of the most iconic artists produced by England in the 20th Century and also, both of them, involving director Dexter Fletcher. He served as somewhat of a life raft for Bohemian Rhapsody, while he was involved from the outset in Rocketman. However, this is pretty much where the comparison ends.
Rocketman goes above and beyond a biopic in its exploration of Elton John. It is not just a summary of his career and personal life, but rather uses his career success as a backdrop for his personal exploration. We see far deeper within the psyche of Elton John than I had expected when seeing the previews.
Scriptwriter Lee Hall uses the brilliant framing device of John entering a rehab facility, dressed in full stage attire and accepting that he needs help for drug addiction, sex addiction and eating disorders. It’s a powerful way to start a film and we see the rest of the tale played out as Elton retells it to his rehab group. It’s a clever way to avoid the historical inaccuracies that are generally inherent within converting a real tale into something that is entertaining in a film. From the off it becomes apparent that Elton is struggling to reconcile his stage and career persona with the vulnerable child of Reginald Dwight that he feels inside. He is very much a victim of his own success and the performance he has put upon. In the way that he achieved success and fame from inhabiting and portraying Elton, the more he has felt the need to suppress the person he used to be as a child.
Music drives the entire film forwards, as John’s music is not only used at significant moments during his career but also to explore the emotional depths of the characters. Right from the off, young Reginald Dwight and family sing “I Want Love”, a crystal clear longing that sets out from the beginning where Elton’s emotional issues lie: in the lack of a secure parental relationship that made him feel wanted and supported. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is used to signal the breaking down of a friendship, “Tiny Dancer” used as a song of mournful longing, while “Honky Cat” is a game of seduction between the sinisterly alluring John Reid (Richard Madden) and naïve Elton.
Retelling the story from Elton’s point of view also allows for some ambitious and visually stunning sequences. In no other biopic would you get away with a transition from young to old Reggie Dwight in a fairground rendition of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, nor a fantasy sequence that culminates in Elton’s head exploding in fireworks. Another section that drips with glorious and cosmic atmosphere is the moment where Elton’s performance of “Crocodile Rock” at the Troubadour causes the audience to (literally) levitate along with Elton. These ambitious sequences are aided by the stunning camerawork and editing that handle both the wide audience shots with more intimate fair. The depiction of Elton’s downward spiral is characterised by frenetic cut shots and a blurry glow, as well as more luxuriant and sumptuous orgy scenes as Elton’s success becomes juxtaposed to the quality of his personal relationships.
The glue that holds this whole film together is the bedazzled, glittering gemstone Taron Egerton. You can tell that he is having the time of his life in this role and that it’s one of his meatiest and most challenging roles to date. It would be easy to portray Elton as a one-note brash diva, but Egerton’s portrayal reconciles both the fierce swagger of Elton John as a performer, as well as a sense of bewilderment and confusion at the overwhelming success he has achieved. Egerton’s bluster is brittle. At any moment, you fear that the bravado will shatter to reveal the scared and needy man within, who cries out for human affection. Behind all of the insistent and dogmatic diva rants, there is a heart and soul yearning for more, yet feeling like he is unworthy of it. All of that – and much more besides – is what makes Egerton’s portrayal so extraordinary.
Alongside that are the other key players in Elton’s story: his faithful writing companion Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his seductive and emotionally abusive manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden), aloof and self-absorbed mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and similarly disengaged father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh). These characters are all used to further Elton’s journey and all are ably played. The calm and mild-mannered portrayal of Bernie is the perfect foil to Elton’s more outlandish and exaggerated ways, and it highlights the extent to which we cannot trust Elton as a narrator, who claims that they have never had an argument (spoilers: they definitely have). Richard Madden’s John Reid is devilishly duplicitous to downright cruel at parts, yet plays the role with a certain level of seduction.
As delightful as all of the other actors are, they really serve as the kindling for the burning fire that is Egerton as Elton John. His portrayal is far less an impression as it is an understanding of the beating soul of Elton as a performer, as well as shining a light upon the real man beneath the mask: the Reginald Dwight underneath the stage costumes and bluster; a story that is far more compelling and heartbreaking.
Rocketman is a complete and utter spectacle. Beautifully shot and directed, with an innovative and nuanced script, the actors clearly have a great deal of fun bringing their roles to life. There is no exaggeration at play in the marketing: Taron Egerton is Elton John here. The use of Elton John’s back catalogue throughout the movie only serves to demonstrate how legendary and enduring his music is. Entirely bonkers in parts, yet gritty and raw in others, it’s an important story that explores the emotional quagmire that was Elton John’s career. Who would have thought that the story of an addicted millionaire in rehab coming to terms with his own identity could be so relatable?