Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t keen on seeing this, but I heard great things, so I took the opportunity to nip into the Northampton Filmhouse by myself whilst she was slaying business dragons in America. I wouldn’t describe myself as an Elton John fan, exactly, but I have a very soft spot for a number of his songs, and I was intrigued to see what they do with all this potent raw material – a life of excess and a musical back catalogue that’s probably sold billions rather than millions.
Rocketman is, on one hand, a stereotypical biopic taking us through the life of Elton John from his early boyhood up to the time when he crashed into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting bursting with crises. We see his suburban-comfortable but emotionally starved early days, with a distant military father who cannot cope with emotion and a vacuous mother whose only love is for herself – thank heavens for his kindly nan, Ivy, who was the only one to take any interest in young Reggie. We see him taking his first steps at the Royal Academy of Music, then breaking into the music business, getting signed to Dick James Music, starting a writing partnership with Bernie Taupin, making and selling records and – pretty much instantly – hitting America on tour. And whilst his commercial success escalates, his personal life deteriorates; the only constant in his life being Taupin, with whom he famously has never had an argument through fifty years of collaboration – that’s some achievement.
On the other hand, the film is a fantasy musical, with much in common with other jukebox musicals, using songs from an artist’s repertoire to complement the various stages of their life. But the first musical number reminded me more of how La-La-Land starts (in other words, brilliantly, then never regaining that opening buzz) with a big song-and-dance extravaganza in the street. Then the rest of the songs are woven into Elton John’s story, some as concert material, but many in a more stylised, almost ethereal manner; and not only sung by John. In fact, one of the most emotionally powerful moments is Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, performed by Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin; one of those brilliant cover versions that completely rewrites the original.
The fact that the songs don’t appear chronologically disturbed me a little at first. Your Song (1970), for example, his first hit, is the seventh number to be performed during the film, whilst the first song in the film, The Bitch is Back, wasn’t released until 1974. Of course, that doesn’t matter with a show like Mamma Mia, where there is an invented story around which the Abba songs snugly fit; but that’s not the case for Rocketman, ostensibly a chronological biopic. However, it’s all performed so beautifully well, and the songs fit the various moods of the film so perfectly, that I had to tell myself to stop being so anal about it.
What impressed me most of all about this film was the sheer quality of the attention to detail and its absolute verisimilitude throughout. The three actors who play Elton John at various stages of his life look and sing so very similarly to the real person; they even capture his smile – teeth slightly exposed, top lip lifted up – you don’t realise that’s how EJ smiles until you see the actors do it. The costumes throughout are a perfect mimic of his concert gear; the film’s finale is an (I believe) 100% correct recreation of the promotional video for his 1983 hit I’m Still Standing. That’s all incredibly impressive.
As we know, Sir Elton has led a life of excess; we see the alcohol, we see the drugs. But what of the sex? In interview, Elton John said he had a lot of sex, but the film – despite its regrettable censorship in Russia to remove all traces of gayness – implies otherwise. It would appear that it’s not until he’s the recipient of a surprise kiss by one of the musicians on his first American tour that there’s any uncertainty over his sexuality; and any such doubts are put to bed (if you’ll pardon the expression) when he meets John Reid and, as a result, leaves DJM and takes Reid as his new manager/lover. But that’s all we know of his sex life; you might have thought he was completely celibate outside that relationship, and I have a sense that the film misrepresents his life in this department somewhat. In fact, the only other relationships we see him involved in are with Bernie Taupin’s landlady – that didn’t work, obvs – and the loveless, sterile few weeks of his good publicity marriage to Renate. His long-term relationship with David Furnish takes place long after the timespan of the film has ended. At the end of the day, the film shows that all Elton John ever really wanted was someone to love him, which was something everyone in his life was unable to provide except for Taupin and his nan.
The performances are delightfully strong throughout. It’s now too late to say of Taron Egerton that a star is born because of his Kingsman roles, but it’s definitely a star performance, with his huge on-screen presence, tremendous voice and just that magic je ne sais quoi. Please read my P. S. below to see how he wouldn’t have got where he is today if it wasn’t for me (I know, I’m so influential). He just exudes quality and authority; he “gets” Elton’s charisma even when he’s portraying him at his most down-and-out. Absolutely first class.
Jamie Bell is superb as Taupin, that ever-reliable presence, a very open and honest guy who’s always the most supportive figure in EJ’s life. You really get the sense of the two of them together as being great mates, getting into a few scrapes but always there for each other – it’s a very heart-warming portrayal. Richard Madden plays Reid as though he’s auditioning for the next Bond movie; terse, arrogant, dynamic and highly convincing. You could really see how he could use sex as a weapon in the war of manipulation.
Bryce Dallas Howard is also excellent as EJ’s deeply unpleasant mother Sheila, and there’s another mini star turn from Steven Mackintosh as his father; regimented, stiff-upper-lip, finding it impossible to conceal his total distaste for his son’s artistic interests. There’s a truly emotional scene when the successful Elton pays a visit to his estranged father and meets his two sons from his subsequent re-marriage – so, his own new half-brothers – and there’s no attempt to bridge any emotional gap between them, even though we can see how close his father is to his new progeny. You’d be devastated if it happened to you.
Big mentions for Kit Connor and especially Matthew Ilsley as the young Reggies (older and younger) who make those opening scenes of the film such a joy. There are also some fantastic cameos from actors you’d queue to see at the theatre, like Sharon D Clarke as the counsellor, Harriet Walter as the Royal Academy of Music tutor, Ophelia Lovibond as Arabella, Celine Schoenmaker as Renate and Jason Pennycooke as Wilson. Blink and you’ll miss Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s Layton Williams as an American band member. And it’s lovely to see The Duchess of Duke Street herself, Gemma Jones, bringing warmth and character to the role of Ivy.
There’s a point in the film where the pace of the storytelling slows down, roughly coinciding with EJ’s descent into addiction and his increased antisocial behaviour; and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt the film sagged a little during those scenes. Otherwise, it’s an eloquent account of the first two-thirds of Sir Elton’s amazing life (what’s that you say? Leaving room for a sequel bringing us up to date if the film were a success?) and musically and visually it’s astounding entertainment. Plenty of Oscars and BAFTAs up for grabs here I expect. And why not?
P. S. So, Taron Egerton’s first stage role was in The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre in 2012, the year he graduated from RADA. If I may quote myself, “in the smaller roles I thought Taron Egerton, in his first professional stage engagement, shows good promise”. High praise indeed; you heard it here first. None of the newspaper critics commented on his performance. #justsaying