Dexter Fletcher (director)
2h 1 min (length)
23 May 2019 (released)
23 May 2019
You’d have to have been living under a rock for the past 50 years not to have heard any of Elton John’s chart-dominating music, and never read a newspaper to not know the ins and out of his life.
So, while his backstory isn’t shrouded in secrecy, laying it bare on the big screen, warts and all, is still a bold move by the hitmaker, who served as executive producer on Dexter Fletcher’s new biopic, Rocketman.
Opening with a young Elton (Matthew Illesley), back when he was still known as Reginald Dwight, we meet a shy boy living in a London suburb in the ‘50s with his brash mum Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), supportive gran Ivy (Gemma Jones), and part-time Royal Air Force-serving father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), whose love and affection Reggie craves.
Realising quickly that he has a natural talent for the piano, Ivy helps her grandson get over his nerves and land a place at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music.
Years later, Elton (now Taron Egerton) is scouted in a local pub and recruited to play on a soul tour. It’s here he begins to realise his potential, and when he’s told by one of the touring singers to kill the person he is to become the person he wants to be, Elton Hercules John is born.
After begging for a shot with a London-based record label, headed up by cigar-chomping Dick James (Stephen Graham), Elton is teamed with gifted songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and in the middle of the swinging ‘60s, one of music’s greatest partnerships emerges.
The pair quickly find success across the pond, with Elton playing a stomping set at LA’s famous Troubadour club. From here, the rising star is catapulted to worldwide fame. And with that, comes sex, drugs and rock and roll. And money – lots and lots of money.
What makes this biopic so fresh is Fletcher and writer Lee Hall's decision to have Elton part-narrating his life story in an AA meeting. Dressed in the feather and rhinestone-covered devil costume Bob Mackie made for the singer’s 1986 Ice on Fire Tour, Elton bursts into a support group for addicts, ready to tell his tale and quit the drink and drugs for good. Among the stories he recounts is his fiery love affair with manager John Reid (Richard Madden), the impact his upbringing had on him, his sham marriage and his enduring friendship with the always supportive Bernie.
And of course, the seamless use of Elton and Bernie’s songs to guide the narrative along works perfectly. Unlike other films and stage shows which take a musical act’s back catalogue and thread together a loose narrative around the songs, Rocketman is an all Elton musical – it's the 72-year-old's life told through his songs.
Egerton, whose vocals are faultless, morphs into Elton before our eyes, helped in no small part by Julian Day’s excellent costumes – recreations of some of Elton’s most outlandish outfits.
Surreal touches, like a drowning Elton coming face-to-face with his younger self at the bottom of his swimming pool, also add something unique and other-worldly to the feature.
The ending is pretty schmaltzy, with Elton, known for decades for his diva behaviour, ultimately painting himself as the good guy, deflecting all blame to the circumstances he found himself in.
Those disappointed with the PG nature of last year’s mega biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which Fletcher stepped in to finish when Bryan Singer was sacked, will appreciate the grittier (read gay sex and cocaine-snorting) scenes, which feel like a truer reflection of a rock star’s life.
Sparkling, special and at times surreal, this is an all-singing, all-dancing, unflinching look at one of music's biggest stars.