Rocketman

Rocketman ★★★★

Dexter Fletcher gets a proper shot at the music biopic following his uncredited directorial work on Bohemian Rhapsody and, in bringing the (larger than) life of Elton John to the big screen, he manages to successfully marry the music biopic with the jukebox musical he had previously finessed with Sunshine on Leith. Because yes, it's fair to say that, at times, Rocketman is more musical than biopic with the hoary old flashback trope that seems a necessity for such movies soon giving way to dizzying, dazzling song and dance setpieces by means of furthering the narrative.

Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with Bohemian Rhapsody, but this is a much stronger, more robust film than that jerry-built crowd pleaser. Satisfyingly, we're on sure ground when it comes to the depiction of homosexuality, with some of the most unabashed gay sex scenes to feature in a mainstream movie. And about time too. Don't get me wrong, we're not in Derek Jarman territory, but it was enough to cause a few murmurs in the screening I was present at. Unlike dramatising Freddie Mercury and Queen, Fletcher and the screenwriter Lee Hall only really have to respect, reassure, please and massage the ego of just one star; Elton Hercules John himself. This means, I imagine, that the film was a more straightforward affair to make and it comes across that way to the audience. It doesn't feel like a hagiography and its foundations are simple yet profound; John's need to be loved can only be truly fulfilled once he comes to terms with loving himself. Love may appear to be in the air when John comes into contact with his smooth operator manager John Reid, but its one-way traffic means that heartbreak, abuse and excess lie along the yellow brick road. A more fitting mutual love affair perhaps lies in John's strictly platonic relationship with his heterosexual songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin. I found it really amusing that John attests that they have never had an argument (a statement that is reiterated in its closing captions) yet the film is actually full of them, placing John in the role of an unreliable narrator which, when you consider the amount of booze and drugs he got through, is it any wonder events are hazy to him?

What of the cast? Well, Jamie Bell continues to impress with his performance here as Taupin, whilst Bodyguard's Richard Madden oozes toxic sexuality as John Reid. Stephen Graham pops up as the man who first signed John, Dick James (trivia fans; this was the man who sang the theme to TV's The Adventures of Robin Hood no less), and is great fun and a little reminiscent of Bob Hoskins, whilst the gorgeous Bryce Dallas Howard with her jet black hair and vintage dresses certainly looks the part of John's mother, a glamourous, somewhat blousy '50s housewife from Pinner, but her accent is sadly a little all over the shop, starting out rather cockney and ending up at the RP that most American actors seem comfortable in adopting when playing British characters. I'd have liked to have seen a bit more of Gemma Jones as John's proud grandmother, arguably the only person who has always believed in him, and Tom Bennett as his teddy boy stepdad, Fred - if only for the comic relief that he brings. At the other end of the spectrum there's Steven Macintosh as John's real father, delivering a suitably brusque and chilly, fractured performance. But, despite the strong work of these actors and more, the film naturally belongs to Taron Egerton as Elton John. It's a barnstorming, appealing performance; at home with both the highs and the lows and never once lost in Fletcher's eye-catching setpieces or Julian Day's equally eye-catching, glorious costumes. Obviously Egerton isn't a natural doppelganger for John, but there are moments in this where he really does look like him, if only for a few moments at a time. A physical likeness doesn't really matter of course, because his commitment to playing the part ensures that, for 120 minutes, he is Elton John.

Maybe some of those setpieces, and their tendency to replace actual narrative, do start to feel a bit repetitive and a teensy bit empty, and I personally would have liked to have seen a bit more about the uncanny musical gift that John possessed from childhood, and how drink and drugs would come to help and/or hinder these incredible abilities, but these are just minor criticisms in a watchable movie that comes from the heart. Fletcher has certainly made a name for himself as a director now but, after three music-based films (this, Bohemian Rhapsody and Sunshine on Leith) and three biopics (Eddie the Eagle, Bohemian Rhapsody and this) I'd like to see him tackle something else, especially as I'm such a fan of his debut, Wild Bill. That said, after seeing the fairground-set Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting) in this, if he'd like to remake (or make something like) Absolute Beginners that'd be fine by me.

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