Film review: ROCKETMAN, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Even in rock’s most outrageously extravagant and theatrical period, early to mid-70’s glam, Elton John managed to stand out. This was due to a combination of raw musical talent, remarkable drive, gleefully absurdist showmanship and his ability – along with lyricist Bernie Taupin – to write enduring radio-friendly hits. Only some of these qualities shine through in the engaging but not gripping Elton John biopic Rocketman.

To tell Elton’s story, writer Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher employ the framing device of Elton (Taron Egerton) recounting his life while in a drug rehab group. Beginning in rehab it’s obvious Rocketman is going to focus on the traumas in Elton’s life. The film depicts his childhood as turbulent and loveless with his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) treating him with disdain and his father refusing to show him affection and making him listen to jazz. In a slightly clunky and obvious way the film telegraphs that Elton or Reggie Dwight as he was known then, was unhappy with his identity and wanted to be anyone other than himself, hence his numerous stage personas. The film traces his trajectory from child musical prodigy to briefly struggling rocker to stadium superstar, his immersion in the debauchery of the rock n roll lifestyle and his sexual awakening as a gay man.

While the film provides a roughly chronological retelling of his life, it might surprise some people to learn that this is a musical with Elton not only performing songs on stage and in the studio but bursting into elaborate fantasy song and dance sequences in the streets, his lounge room and restaurants. It often feels like we’re watching a stage show adaptation.   The fantasised musical numbers are extravagant and generally well-staged but their often-campy style undercuts the drama. Despite the fact that this film is more candid than Bohemian Rhapsody about the star’s sex life, drinking and drug use, the musical theatre format occasionally deprives the film of grit and the intended emotional impact. In fact, the best musical numbers are the live gigs with a performance of Crocodile Rock at LA’s The Troubadour an exhilarating highlight. It’s important to notes the songs here are covers not mimed original versions. Taron Egerton does a reasonable job handling vocal duties although his voice doesn’t entirely work on a couple of tracks and florid arrangements on some tunes softens the rock/pop punch Elton gave his songs.

Egerton, who seems to improve with every film, delivers a rounded character rather than an impersonation although his depiction of Elton is not as nuanced or affecting as Rami Malek’s as Freddie Mercury. Supporting performances are generally strong with Jamie Bell an appropriately resolute and likeable figure as Bernie Taupin and Richard Madden quite sinister and intimidating as Elton’s manager John Reid. Steven Mackintosh is effectively dislikeable in his brief appearance as Elton’s father but Bryce Dallas Howard is a little too shrewish as Elton’s mother and almost seems a caricature.

Those like myself wanting a more comprehensive examination of Elton’s place in the rock world at the time will be slightly disappointed as this film like Bohemian Rhapsody, doesn’t give much sense of the surrounding music scene. Also, there’s a remarkable musical and historical omission from this film which I won’t give away.

Whether it was intentional timing or not Rocketman should benefit from renewed interest in rock biopics inspired by the success of Bohemian Rhapsody but while competent and mostly involving, it it’s unlikely to have that film’s impact.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Musical/ biopic.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Dexter Fletcher.

Release date: 30th May 2019.

Running time: 121 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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