Rocketman review – Elton John biopic that’s better at the tiaras than the tantrums | Film

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Dexter Fletcher’s rousingly good natured Rocketman is the authorised-version movie about the legendary singer-songwriter Elton John: written by Lee Hall, produced by David Furnish and exec produced by the man himself. It’s had to follow the John Lewis Christmas TV ad that everyone loved, which delivered a very similar narrative in a miniaturised version; in fact there’s a moment here with Elton musingly picking out a single-finger tune that even appears to allude to that small-screen gem. Rocketman has also, in a way, had the burden of following or living up to Elton John’s sensational songs, the masterpieces which each seem like mini-movies in themselves – or at the very least the euphoric accompaniment to the most moving final montage you’ve ever seen.

Rocketman is a sucrose-enriched biopic-slash-jukebox-musical hybrid which sometimes feels like it should be on the Broadway or London West End stage – and very possibly will. Sometimes the songs are woven realistically into the action, with Elton performing one of his nuclear-payload belters live on stage, or sometimes musingly trying out a song on the keyboard, giving us all goosebumps as we recognise a prototype of Candle in the Wind. But sometimes the songs are part of a fantasy sequence, choreographed in such a way as takes us close to Lloyd Webber territory.

As Elton John, Taron Egerton gamely does a middleweight impersonation, more comfortable with the lighter side: better at the tiaras than the tantrums. The story takes us from the world of Reg Dwight, a bright, shy kid in Pinner, living with his mum (Bryce Dallas Howard) and emotionally stilted dad (Steven Mackintosh) who without knowing it is sowing the seeds of creative pain and rage. There’s also his adoring gran (Gemma Jones) who encourages his music.

Then there’s the miraculous meeting with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), the gruff philistine-yet-shrewd promoter Dick James (Stephen Graham) – inventor of the “old grey whistle test” for determining a hit – and finally his devastatingly handsome lover and manager John Reid (a toxically sexy Richard Madden) with whom he falls out horribly. It skates us through the glory days of the 70s, the astronomic record-sales, the coke and booze, the misjudged straight marriage and perhaps equally misjudged purchase of Watford FC, concluding with rehab and a 12-step meeting from which the movie is recounted in piously conceived flashback.

The movie disconcertingly ends before he meets the true love of his life David Furnish; there’s no mention of Princess Di, and nothing about his mum’s legendary 90th birthday when they weren’t speaking and she hired an Elton John impersonator to come to her party instead.

Egerton looks the part and carries off the costumes and glasses, the sequinned baseball costumes and jaunty bowlers well enough, but I felt he never quite delivers John’s woundedness when those he loved let him down; he couldn’t quite do the lower-lip-trembling humiliation and hurt which fed into the rage and the fear. I found myself wondering what Bell would have been like in the role.

Of course, this Rocketman resembles the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody in a dozen different ways, although these are arguably genetic music-biopic standards: the poor upbringing, the manager, the scene in the record studio, the fateful first encounter with drugs and the joyful montage as the first hit climbs up the charts. Rocketman is candid enough about John’s identity as a gay man.

I didn’t think this is a case of straightwashing: more unenjoymentwashing, a refusal to portray hedonism in any terms other than doomy disapproval. Elton himself is shown defiantly saying he loved every minute, but the film can’t help tacitly tutting and shaking its head at scenes of him going wild – they lead here to a gesture of attempted suicide. And of course Elton’s indulgences and abuse were dangerous, but they were also part of his creative genius.

There is no central love story here: Bernie Taupin, despite his central importance to Elton life and art, isn’t in the action much and it is not easy to invest in Reid either as a lost love or a bad guy who broke Elton’s heart. Lee Hall’s dialogue, robust enough, is often a bit on the nose, making sure we know what we’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. It’s a bit by-the-numbers – but again, it could well sound better on stage

What the movie made an honest job of, was conveying the meaning of the song itself: the rocket pilot who is afraid and lonely and for whom the apparently mind-blowing business of space travel is all in a day’s work. Rocketman is an honest, heartfelt tribute to Elton John’s music and his public image. But the man itself eluded it.

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