Review: Rocketman

Rocketman...has landed! And for those wanting an upbeat, musical pick-me-up to celebrate the arrival of Spring, this is just the ticket.

Though if I see another biopic about a flawed but ultimately loveable gay musical icon any time soon, I shall cry formula. Because Hollywood loves a formula, just so long as it keeps on delivering success and squillions at the box office. And the general love shown to Bohemian Rhapsody combined with the ecstatic receipts has shown them the way.

Basic biopic - with added therapy

This is pretty standard fare as biopics go, wrapped in a slightly off-putting (for me) therapeutic wraparound. The film opens with a grown-up Elton John (Taron Egerton), storming out of a performance and off down the street into what we first assume to be an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Although this is revealed, towards the end, as something more substantial because, well....superstars don't do meetings in slightly off church halls where just any member of the great unwashed is allowed in. Nah: this is bells and whistles rehab clinic in a great big mansion of a building where, one suspects, the daily fees would more than pay the weekly wages of the average employee.

Still, this framing allows the film to dive back to childhood and the earliest days of Reg Dwight – as Elton was known before he became Elton – and a pretty grim 50s childhood it is too. And that is before you get started on uptight mum Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and unloving dad Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) who walks out the door shortly after Dwight/Elton turns teen.

Meteoric rise

After that, though, it is all pretty standard arc. Elton is a natural on the piano. One revelation from this film was just how much of a prodigy he was: able to hear a piece of music and sit down and play it; or composing some of his best music in half an hour sat at a piano. He wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Plays piano at his local pub. Gets a gig as backing to the odd tour and then, an introduction to songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), sets off on a rapid rise as musical half of the writer/composer duo of Taupin/John, creating dozens of songs for other artistes.

Then, pushing through, winning a contract for three albums. Per year! And a slot at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles, where achieves instant stardom.

One issue for this film, as for Bohemian Rhapsody, is that the rise of the central character is so rapid, so stellar, that there is little room, in the first half of the film, for blood sweat and tears. As his mum rounds on him later in the film: “it was always so easy”. Looking back, I realise what I did not at the time: that Elton John was a professional musician at 20. And perhaps his greatest album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was released when he was 26!

Falling to earth

So the long-brewing dramatic crisis, telegraphed in the very first minutes of the film is his gradual transition to addict - alcoholic, cokehead, bulimic, you name it – brought about by a crashing lack of self worth. Which in turn tracks back to his cold-hearted parents, his gayness, and a conviction that he is utterly unloveable. He was always, as one character observes towards the end, a “shy boy”...and though he might have attempted to shrug off his true self with transformation to elton, he never quite succeeds.

Matters are not helped by his hot and cold relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden), here depicted as a cruel, autocratic manager, who ousted John's more loveable managers Dick (Stephen Graham) and Ray (Charlie Rowe), using the fact he was, at the time, John's lover, to do so. If there is villain to this film, it is Reid: though how true the depiction of him here, who knows? One of the Producers on the film is Elton's long term partner and husband David Furnish and....

...well, if you were given free rein to portray your partner's ex on screen, what WOULD you do with them?

Don't miss this

This is a wonderful film. As Elton, Taron Egerton puts in a sterling performance, even overcoming the danger of putting a well-known actor in to mimic an even more famous musician. But Taron pulls it off, brilliantly and when it comes time for awards, this role must put him in the running. Big thumbs up, too to Richard Madden and Jamie Bell.

The music is full of life and interweaves brilliantly with the on-screen action. In that sense, this film is as much musical as biopic, as the set piece numbers, including almost all of Elton's greatest hits (apart from Candle in the Wind, from which we are treated to no more than a few bars) are there and used to illustrate a point. There is also added music, new material, there to provide dramatic link in the early part of the film.

That, in turn, informs the staging of the music which is equally original, glittering and breath-taking. Especially the re-imagining of Rocketman which starts at the bottom of a swimming pool and then proceeds to a place of dream. Beyond this world. This life.

My only quibble with the film – and in the end I can forgive it this – was the psychobabble wraparound. It provides, dramatically, a neat tying off of the main themes in the film. But it is just a tad easy: quease-making, even. For all that, a great and watchable film.

Four stars.