Bohemian Rhapsody was always going to be tough to beat, but, whether Rocketman tops it or not doesn’t matter because it’s certainly in the same league.
Rocketman focuses on a short period of Elton John’s life when his drug, alcohol and sex addictions had spiralled out of control. These were also his breakthrough years when he made it to the top in the US. He was bigger than Bowie, with seven consecutive number one albums in the US, and they all happened within three and a half years (from 1970). He released three albums in one year.
The film is a fantasy journey into moments in Elton’s life which caused the spiral – and they are told in song, reflected very much in Bernie Taupin’s words. Taron Egerton plays Elton – and does it superbly; in the I’m Still Standing number filmed in Cannes I thought they had spliced in Elton – I really found it almost impossible to distinguish between Elton and Egerton except for Egerton’s dimples! Egerton’s transition from the suave role in Kingsman to a flashy and impassioned Elton was quite a profound transformation. Egerton does all his own singing in the film – quite a feat – as I wondered at times if it had been dubbed.
Jamie Bell plays his songwriting partner Taupin and is perhaps the most likeable character in the film. In a lovely synchronicity, Bell was the original Billy Elliot in the self-named film which was later converted into an award-winning musical with Elton’s music. Bell plays Taupin with sensitivity and a generous heart, and quite a bit of 70s hair. He totally disappears into the character.
We are given a glimpse into the early life of Elton as the musical prodigy that he was – and remains today. From a child, he could hear a piece of music and play it by ear. His gift won him a scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London. From here he wrote tunes – but struggled with the words – before his lifelong partner (50 years without a single fight, though that assertion is stretched in a couple of scenes) Taupin emerged with sheaves of lyrics.
The film depicts Elton as seeking someone who will love him. His mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father (Steven Mackintosh) are cold and unloving, and treat him as a hindrance in the home. His mother complains that he could never know how hard it is to be his mother. His grandmother played by Gemma Jones (Bridget Jones’s mother) is warm and encourages his prodigious talent. Richard Madden (from Game of Thrones) portrays loathsome music executive John Reid, who shatters Elton.
Bernie Taupin and Elton John both said they cried when they saw the film at Cannes this year. Elton was impressed with Egerton’s acting and singing – he felt it was him.
I had forgotten my first experience of Elton until I saw him in full excess of fabulousness in the musical scenes – beginning with the first big number, Crocodile Rock at the Troubadour. When I saw him in those shoes – the quintessential Elton diamante platforms – I remembered my cousin owning the album Yellow Brick Road (which I thought was about Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz). We had another cousin who worked in the shoe store Elton frequented in LA, and she would come to Sydney with a bag full of her shoes in the early 70s – it was definitely a decade of excess.
In Rocketman, the outfits and the bright LA colours are so blinding and convey the idea of the 70s and as being the first big hit, was in fact buried on the B-side of Take Me to the Pilot, the first single from the Elton John album. Take Me to the Pilot didn’t work as a hit, but a couple of DJs did.
Your Song, which in the movie is depicted as being the first big hit was in fact originally buried on the B-side of Take Me to the Pilot, the first single from the Elton John album. That single didn’t really work as a hit, but a couple of radio DJs played Your Song and the success was organic. In reality, it wasn’t Elton’s record execs, publisher or managers who saw its commercial potential.
Director, Dexter Fletcher, does a magnificent job of the choreographed numbers, from the first big dances The Bitch is Back and Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting). This is a true musical fantasy with a dose of magic thrown in. As one reviewer has put it “a dizzy, bedazzling biopic that leaves no sequin or fantasy sequence unturned”.
From the first moment on screen in the orange rocket man number, it’s clear this film is always going to be a flamboyant telling of the Elton tale, and it’s an important part of his persona. Even in the early days when he is preparing for LA, he chooses loud overalls and platforms.
Fletcher was also partly responsible for Bohemian Rhapsody, yet the films are vastly different in their treatment of their subjects. Bohemian Rhapsody is a linear recounting of the Queen history, Rocketman is based on a discrete period of Elton’s life, told in flashback fantasy scenes.
There are underwater numbers, floating numbers – the fantasy dance numbers pulse with colour, flamboyance and energy throughout the film. Rocket Man, Tiny Dancer, Pinball Wizard, Honky Cat and even the duet with Kiki Dee, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart are all given a treatment by Fletcher.
Looking at Elton’s outfits now, there is a real greatness about them, and the character that he has inhabited is something special. At the time, however, so many of his early looks – the overalls, the baseball cap and sequinned baseball outfit to name a few – went through a “daggy” phase where he was decidedly uncool. Bowie never succumbed to a lack of cool. Elton survived his uncool phase and is in fact, as this movie shows, a survivor. And more important than anything, he is loved.