entertainment

Review | 'Rocketman' delivers more than 'Bohemian Rhapsody'

Find out what we thought of the Elton John musical biopic

2019-05-28

Words: Hugh Kaye

Most of Elton John’s life has been lived in the headlines so there’s not much a biopic of Pinner’s most famous native can bring.

Kudos, then, to director Dexter Fletcher for making Rocketman an enjoyable ride and a film that refuses to sugar-coat the pop star’s addiction issues.

That said, despite everything we do witness, there still feels like something is missing. Part of this is beyond the film’s power.

Unlike the subjects of many other biopics, from The Glenn Miller Story in 1954, through La Bamba, the 1987 telling of the career of rock ‘n’ roll star Richie Valens, to Control (2007) which tells of Joy Division’s Ian Carter, and more recently Bohemian Rhapsody, Elton is still very much alive. He’s still standing, better than he ever did.

So, there is no feeling of a talent unfilled, a life unlived. We don’t have to wonder what would have been, which means there is less emotion to be squeezed from the movie.

But that’s not all that’s missing. There’s been much talk about the sex scene between Elton, played with gusto by Taron Egerton, and the man who was to become his manager, John Reid (the Bodyguard’s Richard Madden), and whether it would remain in the final cut.

It does, but to say it’s one of the most PG things you’ll ever see is to understate things: it certainly can’t be what earns the movie its 15 rating.

In an early scene, Elton admits to being a sex addict. We see nothing further of it. Not even the hint of catching young man’s eye in a club or at a party.

It’s this that leaves you with the feeling that this is more a warts than a “warts-and-all” story.

That aside, it’s a beautifully crafted film. Director Dexter Fletcher lovingly captures some of Elton’s biggest concerts, weirdest costumes and totally bonkers lifestyle.

We are even treated to an underwater number as Elton spirals out of control, and his impersonation of a Guy Fawkes Night err rocket.

I defy you not to want to get up and dance during a rendition of 'Crocodile Rock' at LA’s legendary Troubadour, which sets Elton on his way to conquering America.

Then there are the unexpected dance number, which hark back to musicals of the 1970s. That’s so not how I imagined 'Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)'.

Fletcher has come a long way since appearing in Steven Moffat’s children’s newspaper TV drama Press Gang, which ran between 1989 and 1993 and co-starred Ab Fab’s Julia Sawalha.

Early on, Rocketman feels odd because the hits don’t appear in anything approaching the order in which they were released but once you accept that they are used to document periods of Elton’s life, you realise it’s a clever move – although I was left wondering what happened to Candle in the Wind. And -- given his HIV/Aids campaigning the closing credits would have been a perfect spot for 'The Last Song'.

But that is nit-picking given that the action ends before its release.

Special mention must go to nine-year-old Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor, 15, who play the young Reggie. They both look and sound how you would imagine he did, capturing poses in famous photos of the young star-to-be.

Both reveal how desperately he yearned for a father’s love that was never to come, the modest way he reveals his talent and the awkward realisation that he isn’t like other boys – although it would have been interesting to see how he got on at school.

This conflicts with the star’s later obnoxious behaviour and self-loathing. Both lads have good voices – Matthew in particular out-sings grown-up Elton Taron Egerton, who is pretty good himself.

One person who doesn’t come out of the tale well is Reid, Elton’s long-time manager and shorter-time lover.

If he’s even half as slimy as Madden portrays him, you’d have to ask why anyone would fall in love with him. Reid is reported to have earned £73m in a 28-year period thanks to Elton.

Of course, the film is – and has to – be carried by Egerton. Although never convinced I was watching Elton -- and you aren’t really meant to -- it’s a charming performance and he carries off the man’s almost split personality: the hugely shy Reg Dwight, who is petrified of playing in public for fear of not being good enough, and Elton who comes to life as soon as he steps on stage.

One scene stands out when he admits that he’s not sure he can actually be the Elton half without the drugs and alcohol.

But Taron is at least matched by Jamie Bell as Elton’s life-long creative partner Bernie Taupin.

It’s a beautifully understated performance (OK, admission here: I’ve had the hots for Bell since the weird Hallam Foe) and you can’t help but realise that this is the someone who saved his life tonight, saved him in many ways – before David Furnish came on the scene to give him the love he so craved from another man.

In the end, Rocketman delivers much more than Bo Rhap. It’s far braver – not just with regard to the pills and booze but also the realistic language -- and if you’re a fan of Elton’s music, you’ll love it.

If you’re not, I’d still urge you to go and see it. And to be glad that he is – somehow  – still with us.

Rocketman is out in UK cinemas now.