Despite a torrent of scathing reviews and some extremely meme-able editing, Bohemian Rhapsody (opens in new tab) was a commercial smash, banking close to a billion worldwide and bagging an Oscar for its leading man Rami Malek. It set a high bar for Elton John biopic Rocketman, starring Taron Egerton as the stylish showman, and directed by Dexter Fletcher - the Brit filmmaker parachuted in to take the reins of BoRhap when Bryan Singer was fired for going AWOL on set. But despite the fact it’s a better film than BoRhap by almost every conceivable metric, Rocketman never truly takes off.
Part of the reason for this is that, for all the filmmakers’ attempts to distance themselves from the biopic label (their preferred nomenclature is "musical fantasy"), Rocketman follows the Ray/Walk The Line formula so closely that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story could be re-released tomorrow and still feel fresh. Opening with that most rote of framing devices - the AA meeting - as Elton recounts his life story from rehab, the film initially covers the former Reginald Dwight's early childhood and burgeoning talent tinkling the ivories. Raised in an unhappy home by his emotionally distant dad (Steven Mackintosh) and uncaring mum (Bryce Dallas Howard, approximating a British accent), Elton finds solace in a partnership with lyricist extraordinaire Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Bernie provides the words, Elton handles the music. International fame and fortune follows.
The musical numbers here aren’t limited to recording sessions or stage performances - songs can, and do, break out at a moment’s notice. Fletcher goes for it, ticking off banger after banger like a Greatest Hits compilation. Elton John’s music dominates the soundtrack completely but, crucially, we don’t ever hear his actual voice on film. Egerton sings every word throughout, creating a consistency between his performance on and off stage too often lacking from films like this. And it only works because Egerton proves more than up to the Herculean task, as anyone who's heard him perform "I'm Still Standing" as an animated Gorilla in Dreamworks 'toon Sing can probably attest.
Egerton is every bit as lively and flamboyant as you want from Elton John, particularly relishing the surreal situations he’s thrown into during several fantasy sequences, including underwater duets with his younger self, elaborate carnival dance routines and a literally showstopping moment where he, and the entire audience, start to levitate mid-set, all impressively choreographed and assembled in lengthy tracking shots. But Egerton struggles with some of the film's more heightened dramatic moments. A scene where he comes out to his mother in a phone box feels a bit like a one-man student stage show, complete with awkward grimacing. But in general, it's a performance that goes much deeper than mere look-a-like.
For the Elton purists, there are historical inaccuracies - a song performed years before it was written here, a major life event out of sequence there - but nothing so egregious that it feels disingenuous. And, importantly, for all the justified criticism of BoRhap’s sanitised take on Freddie Mercury’s life - particularly his sexuality - Rocketman doesn’t hold back. Practically the first words out of Egerton’s mouth are pointedly confessional: "I'm Elton Hercules John and I’m an alcoholic, cocaine addict, sex addict, bulimic, shopaholic..." The list goes on. Elton’s relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden), the film's villain who provides yet more connective tissue with BoRhap (he was Queen’s manager for a time and is played by Aidan Gillan in Singer’s film), is explicitly consummated. Drugs are inhaled with greater frequency than oxygen, alcohol is a staple on the breakfast table and more than one C-bomb makes the cut.
The result is a far more honest-feeling depiction of the stratospheric highs and cavernous lows of one of our greatest musical minds, with a never-better Egerton wearing his heart on his sleeve throughout. But for all Fletcher's sincere efforts to distinguish Rocketman from the countless other musical biopics that have come before, it's a film that hits too many familiar beats to ever truly dazzle.
- Release date: May 31, 2019
- Certificate: R
- Running time: 121 mins
- Image Credit: Paramount Pictures