The movie of Elton John’s life does some odd things in its mix of rock biopic and stage musical.
It’s steeped in 1970s John fabulosity. It’s got sex, drugs and spectacular crimes against fashion. It often leaps – platform heels, sequined dungarees and all – into episodes of musical fantasia. The title song, for example, is performed at the bottom of a swimming pool into which a strung-out John (Taron Egerton) has jumped, wanting to end it all. There, he duets with himself as a boy (nice high harmony) in an astronaut suit. It’s just one moment among many in which the songs feel like sideshows tangential to the drama.
Some are just a weird fit. The Bitch Is Back might be John’s traditional live set-opener, but having it start the film as a song-and-dance number in his boyhood suburbia is quite odd. As far as delivering something new or insightful, Rocketman’s grand artifice tends to bury the artistry. True, the John story has already been told many times in biographies and documentaries. He kicked off the closet doors and threw out the skeletons years ago.
As a rock biopic, it is much less sanitised than last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, with which it shares a director, Dexter Fletcher, and a mutual character: John’s manager and early-70s lover, John Reid (here played by Richard Madden in a prettier incarnation than the Queen movie).
But it still doesn’t quite excite or, well, rock in the way Rhapsody did, which made that film’s shortcomings forgivable. Part of that is the result of Egerton’s performance. It’s a decent impersonation, both acting and singing, but only that. The script by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall doesn’t give him much breathing room, although it does spend time depicting John’s enduring partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, nicely played by Jamie Bell.
The story is framed in flashbacks recounted by John at a group therapy session where, early in the film, he has arrived wearing a stage costume of devil horns and wings, looking like a man clearly dressed to face his demons, even if he is wearing rose-tinted spectacles. That post-rehab confessional device gives the flashbacks to his roller-coaster high life an air of regret and cautionary tale. It can all feel a bit tut-tut. That said, Rocketman is infectious fun when it’s charting the rapid rise of Reg Dwight from gifted teenage pub piano player to late-60s blues band sideman and early 70s glam-rock superstar via a name change and a firecracker string of early hits.
There, Rocketman achieves lift-off – as do John and his audience during a scene depicting his 1970 breakthrough show in a Los Angeles club. It’s quite a moment. The film isn’t a great or illuminating biographical drama, but does a good job of bringing us Elton, the madman showman. For many, that will be enough.
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This article was first published in the June 8, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.