Follow the yellow brick road
Part-biopic, part-musical and part-fantasy, Rocketman is an absolute blast
There is a newly-invented subgenre of the rock biopic: the queer, British, 1970s-set rock biopic, preferably with family trauma and cruel (or at least unsympathetic) parents. First was Bohemian Rhapsody, the shoddy Freddie Mercury flick, whose status as an Oscar-nominated title still befuddles. Now comes Rocketman, in which Taron Egerton preens and struts in Elton John's greatest hits of wardrobe flamboyance, even at his AA session.
What connects the two films, besides its queer British 1970s musicians -- one dead, one still on tour -- is director Dexter Fletcher. Hired to finish Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer wreaked havoc and was sacked, Fletcher, uncredited in the Queen picture, has gone on to helm Rocketman in its entire flourish.
And if one ever wonders what Bohemian would have been like had he been the first-choice director, then the news is positive. Rocketman, despite its Freudian blabber, is a better and more entertaining movie, a deliberately loose-around-the-edges biography with a series of musical showpieces to hook you along.
And Taron Egerton, propelled to minor stardom by the two Kingsman movies, wears the razzle-dazzle of Elton's life and music wholesomely. He's not fixated on mimicking his subject (and executive producer); his Elton is not a didactic impersonation job. Rather, because Fletcher's film is liberal with its fantastical rendition of Elton's life episodes, Egerton has more room to play the character, to exaggerate his subject's celebrated exaggeration. In any case, physical likeness isn't a problem, since the wacky glasses and perpetually receding hairline are enough to remind us who we're supposed to be watching.
The film follows Reginald Dwight's childhood, which isn't tragic, but features a fair share of parental cynicism. Then, when he becomes Elton Hercules John, we follow roughly the first 15 years or so of his career. The trajectory is extremely familiar, since we've seen it a dozen times before in biopics: the discovery of a musical talent as a child, the bruised home life with a sarcastic mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and contemptuous father (Steven Mackintosh), the signing with a small label, the spectacular rise to fame, the successful tour in the US, the sex, cocaine and alcoholism, the opportunistic manager, the immense fortune and immensely unhappy existence, the final act of reconciliation.
What makes Rocketman bounce -- and in many sequences it truly bounces -- is Fletcher's choice of tone: the film is a mix of serious drama and madcap fantasy. When Elton levitates mid-song as the excited crowd goes slo-mo, entranced by his piano rhythm, or when the nurses tending to his drug-related collapse line up like a troupe of chorus dancers, we realise that the film is agile in its combination of biographical narrative, fan service, exuberant music video and nimble choreography. In this, it resembles vintage Hollywood musicals.
Parading Elton John's legendary catalogue of stage costumes -- headdresses, feathers, spandex, gowns, glasses, the whole shebang -- the film reels out a bewildering array of hits, such as The Bitch Is Back, Your Song, Crocodile Rock, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Honky Cat, etc, and succeeds in making them sound fresh. (It doesn't feature just Egerton's voice, but different actors singing different songs according to the story at each point.)
Jamie Bell plays Bernie Taupin, Elton's songwriting partner, and their relationship is portrayed as the emotional anchor in the musician's life. Richard Madden (Robb Stark from Game Of Thrones) plays John Reid, John's lover and manager; their sex scene is reportedly one of the most passionate ever seen in a major studio film (nothing groundbreaking, mind you).
But of course, it's Egerton who keeps this flight of fancy grounded. I don't think he'll repeat the Rami Malek voyage to the Oscars, but he's good at mixing sensitivity with eccentricity, pain with joy, tears with alcohol. Rocketman frames the entire story as John's confessional monologue at an AA session, and this psychological investigation of a man who decided to reinvent himself for the world is something of a drag. His songs, I think, already say it all, and the literal depiction of his transformation is to discount the power of his music. The Rocketman in his heyday was out of this world. Perhaps it's best to let him run loose, fired up by the wild fantasy that was indistinguishable from the reality of his era.