Sunday 16 June 2019

Rocketman review: 'Extraordinarily good, and gives us Elton John in his magnificent prime'

5 stars

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

The success of Bohemian Rhapsody must have taken even its makers by surprise. A film about a 1970s rock god who’s been dead for nearly 30 years grossed almost a billion dollars and won four Oscars, including Best Actor for Rami Malek.

People loved it, despite the fact that it was, if we’re honest, a bit of a mess: entertaining, but full of holes and clunky exposition, held together by a barnstorming performance from Mr. Malek, who succeeded in catching Mercury’s essence, even though he was miming his songs.

It succeeded, I think, because people love Freddie, and watching Bohemian Rhapsody felt a bit like having him back again.  Will they feel the same about Rocketman?

Elton John, of course, is still very much alive, over 70 but in rude good health and about to embark on a worldwide concert tour. Will people want to go and see a simulated Elton when the real one is belting out the classics at the 3Arena? They might, because Rocketman happens to be extraordinarily good, and gives us John in his magnificent prime.

So much lore and legend has encrusted around Elton over the years that the real person is hard to find.  Rocketman peels back the layers of hyperbole to give us an idea of who the singer really was, but interestingly, does so using the high artifice of a West End musical.

It’s directed by Dexter Fletcher, who completed Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer had been fired, and co-produced by Elton John’s partner David Furnish, which might lead one to suspect that this is going to be an airbrushed hagiography. In fact it’s anything but: Elton has always been refreshingly honest about his drug and alcohol addictions, and Rocketman charts the rock bottom lows as well as the giddy highs of his early career. It also gives Bernie Taupin, John’s oldest friend and songwriting partner, the central role he deserves.

We first meet Reg Dwight long before he adopted his illustrious stage name, as he trudges through a repressed and not especially happy working class English childhood. Born in Pinner, Middlesex in 1947, Reg is raised mainly by his constant but critical mother, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and doting grandmother, Ivy (Gemma Jones): his strained relationship with his emotionally catatonic father (Steven Mackintosh) ends in Reg’s teens when the marriage breaks down.

A shy, thoughtful boy, Reg shows an early interest in piano and turns out to be a prodigy. In one very amusing scene, he turns up for an audition at the Royal Academy of Music to find his examiner expertly playing a classical piece. She’s surprised to find he’s brought no music sheets with him, then he sits down and plays what she played, stopping abruptly at exactly the same point. His talent blossoms, but then he discovers Elvis, and after playing pub gigs and working as a session musician, he strikes out on his own and changes his name to Elton ‘Hercules’ John.

The grown up Elton is played by Taron Egerton, a good actor who’s been unlucky in his choices and may regret having fronted up the ghastly Bond spoof franchise Kingsman.  He gets his chance here, and by God does he seize it.

Elton’s career begins to take off when he meets Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), a young lyricist with a brilliantly direct style whose dancing poems perfectly match John’s lush arrangements. After being knocked into shape by no-nonsense East End manager Dick James (Stephen Graham), the duo’s hits start coming, and in August of 1970 Elton is invited to Los Angeles to play a short residency at the legendary Troubadour club.

He causes a sensation, and the moment is brilliantly recreated in Rocketman, but after breaking America at just 23, the demands and excesses of life on the road quickly become too much for him. Richard Madden plays John Reid, the unscrupulous manager who became Elton’s lover and advisor, and signally failed to shield him from the mad excesses of the music business in the 1970s.

Bad stuff happens to Elton in Rocketman, but somehow the coke binges and suicide bids fail to dampen the film’s joyous, life-affirming mood. Too many modern musicals try to hedge their bets, but Rocketman puts Elton’s songs front and centre, using them to illustrate key episodes in his life.

The fact that Taron Egerton sings rather than mimes gives the film a raw urgency Bohemian Rhapsody lacked, and overall he does a fine job of catching the essence of John’s uniquely exuberant vocal style. His overall performance gives us Elton in all his glorious contradictions, the shy and hesitant Middlesex boy who became a globetrotting peacock and five-star diva, but remained very hard not to love. 

(15A, 121mins)

Also releasing this week:

Aladdin review: 'This Aladdin remake is fine, but I’m not sure I see the point of it'

 

Memoir of War review: 'Melanie Thierry’s portrayal of the alternately tender and ruthless writer is fascinating'

 

Secret Life of Pets 2 review: 'Isn’t quite as funny as the first, but the animation’s lovely'

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