Whatever you thought of Bohemian Rhapsody, its awards and box office success have guaranteed that we’re about to get a whole slew of similarly glitzy nostalgic jukebox biopics about the 20th Century’s best-selling musicians. First out of the gates is Elton John story Rocketman, from Dexter Fletcher (who also directed the last three weeks of Bohemian Rhapsody’s shoot), and though it may not break the genre mould, it finds much more joy in the music than most of its contemporaries. Where most of these films restrict the music to specific performances, Fletcher has made an out and out musical, full of all the spontaneous singing and flights of fancy that you could possibly want.
Framed by Elton (Taron Egerton) telling his life story in a rehab centre, Rocketman is a whole life story, starting with his childhood in Pinner as Reginald Dwight and charting the highs and lows of his meteoric rise to fame and fortune. A gifted prodigy on the piano, he’s eventually put in contact with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and their combined talents soon take them to America and world-conquering success. It’s a shaky start, the transition of end-of-story confessional into troubled childhood never escaping cliché, but after a fabulous musical number set to ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’, in which we see young Reg transform into Egerton’s Elton, things really pick up.
A seamless run through the chaotic streets of late-night London, it’s one of the best set-pieces in a film full of knockout choreography and a real sense of fun and flair. Fletcher recognises the transporting power of great songs and visualises it incredibly well, whether it’s Young Reg conducting an entire orchestra from his bedroom or Elton’s first performance at the Troubador in LA, which has him and his audience literally floating on air. ‘Rocket Man’ itself also gets a showstopping number and, though not all the songs are as good (the definitive screen rendition of ‘Tiny Dancer’ remains Almost Famous’s bus singalong), they do all give a sense of irresistible motion so often missing from artist biopics.
Rocketman also sets itself apart from its contemporaries by keeping the real Elton John out of the soundtrack until the end credits. Egerton covers every song featured in the film and does a stunning job. It’s a real superstar performance, all-singing and all-dancing, but also fully capable of more grounded emotion, particularly as Elton realises the extent of the damage done to him by his uncaring parents (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh).
As the villains of the piece, they are joined by Elton’s long-time manager and boyfriend John Reid (Richard Madden). Madden brings a wily sliminess to Reid, but Fletcher and writer Lee Hall wisely leave him some room for sympathy. We only see Reid through Elton’s drug-addled and often cripplingly lonely eyes, and his reactions to Elton’s more dramatic behaviour are harsh but not entirely incomprehensible. Their romantic relationship is played with refreshing frankness – Rocketman is the first major studio release to feature gay sex scenes – with little of the embarrassed queer erasure that plagued Bohemian Rhapsody.
Though it may look like a paint by numbers biopic on paper (and does sometimes play that way in practice, too), Rocketman so actively celebrates its subject matter (without becoming a hagiography) that it elevates itself well above its notional peers. The idea to turn a musical history film into, well, a musical is so obvious in retrospect that it feels mad that more movies haven’t tried it, but it’s sure to be a trick that plenty of directors and studios borrow now.