Rocketman – Review
David Conway finds himself entranced by the fantastical musical setpieces of this Elton John biopic.
Rocketman, a fantastical musical biopic following Elton John through his rise to stardom, feels earnest precisely because it avoids the core trapping which so many biopics are ruined by; complete fidelity to reality. A fact-by-fact, exposition-laden two hour narrative is no way to convey the spirit of someone’s life, and director Dexter Fletcher understands this perfectly. Instead, the film is packed with surreal fantasy sequences, huge dance numbers and all the flamboyant aesthetics of an Elton concert.
We open with Elton (Taron Egerton) strolling in majestically, in full costume and wings. Only, when he walks into his destination, he’s not going to perform to an adoring crowd; he’s entering an AA meeting. From here, we follow him telling his life story. There is immediate emphasis that this is Elton’s perspective rather than a factual retelling, and this unreliable narration defines the film. We feel like we’re wrapped in up in a narrative woven by a mischievous storyteller; true at heart, but with plenty of outlandish flourishes to spice things up. Though characters may dance, sing and even levitate and rocket away, the raw personal conflicts keep the film’s feet firmly on the ground. Elton’s unhappy upbringing, tumultuous relationship with his manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), and enduring friendship with co-songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) are explored unflinchingly, showing all sides of the singer’s personality. There’s just a bit of extra sparkle over the story, and that’s no bad thing, because the film acknowledges it.
“These are carefully choreographed pieces that show both the temptations and glitz of being a rock star, and the complete distance it forms between Elton, everyone else, and his selfhood”
The musical sequences are consistently dazzling, because there’s depth to them. A section covering Elton’s cover of ‘Pinball Wizard’ becomes a furious, spinning flurry of drug addled performances, and ‘Rocket Man’ itself is a beautiful journey through Elton’s mental and physical struggles, with a haunting, strange underwater setpiece at its heart. It’s not just empty glamour – or when it is, we’re meant to feel the emptiness of it. These are carefully choreographed pieces that show both the temptations and glitz of being a rock star, and the complete distance it forms between Elton, everyone else, and his selfhood. The songs take on new meaning as we understand them in the context of Elton and Bernie Taupin’s lives; ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ seems achingly personal when sung between the two men.
A few biopic clichés find their way into the film, predominantly during the opening section following the young Elton/Reg Dwight. The typical ‘real’ character beats that seem to plague so many biopics, and ironically make them feel totally unreal, are present; the strained family dinner, the first time playing piano where everyone instantly recognises the protagonist’s remarkable talents, etc. However, once we exit this section and join the grown-up Elton dancing his way through ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’, it becomes something far more unique. Occasionally, these moments seep back in (the typical abrasive manager character towards the start sticks in the mind) but they are thoroughly outnumbered by the many joyous moments of inspiration the film has.
A moving insight of what it is to be a celebrity, and how one can get lost between two personas, Rocketman is an entrancing blend of sorrow and joy. It’s also just a bloody good musical, full of killer songs and spectacle. There’s elegance and care here for every element, from Taron Egerton’s passionate star turn in the lead role, to the dizzying visual effects that go from under the sea to outer space. Rocketman is a fantasy world you’ll be more than glad to spend two hours in, with an underlying reality that will break your heart, then lift your spirits.