Biopics usually fall into two categories. Those that are determined to present the historical events in as much cinematic detail as possible and those that are more interested in presenting the essence of the person at the heart of the biography. ‘Rocketman’ falls firmly in the second category.
The film chronicles the growth of Reginald Dwight from a young boy in 1950’s Britain, through his development as performer, Elton John, in the 60’s and 70’s, to his breaking point and sobriety in the early 80’s.
Walking out the cinema I felt I knew more about the personal journey from Reggie Dwight to Elton Hercules John, but was still a bit hazy on the order of events and timescales that resulted in his success and downfall. If you go into this to see sordid details of the exploits and behind the scenes details of one of the most successful musical acts of all time, you’ll be disappointed. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t explore the darker side of the business and success, it just does it in a more fantastical and theatrical way. This is a strength and weakness of the movie.
The story jumps from one milestone moment to another, often in quick succession. Hammering home how Elton is feeling and how the events are shaping him. These leaps in story compress the timescales and leave the view guessing how long has passed. The other issue I had with these leaps is the inconsistency in how they were transitioned.
Some are done with a simple edit to a new scene, others are handled with more flair during a musical number or a fantasy delusion. The latter work much better, especially when we are experiencing the confusion and dizziness of the drug haze of the late 70’s. There are several slightly fourth wall breaking transitions in which Elton moves from one location or moment in time to another by moving through a door (or is literally rocketed off a stage on to new scene) to a new costume and scene and Elton starts the new scene confused, acknowledging the speed and disjointed move from one time and place to another. Nicely establishing his state of mind during this period.
That is the true strength of this film. It provides an excellent insight into a man that is looking to be loved, constantly denying himself and hiding behind his success. This is a story for anyone that has looked in the mirror and not recognised the person looking back at them. There is an expectation that the performer on stage is the person that exists between curtain calls. For someone so flamboyant as Elton John, it should come as no surprise that the big shoes, crazy glasses and elaborate costumes are just the armour and façade of a sad clown.
This struggle and inner turmoil are delivered excellently by the films Elton John, Taron Egerton. Egerton is excellent and carries the film in both the dramatic moments and the musical numbers, which are best when they go full Broadway. The fact that he sings the songs himself doesn’t hurt. While it won’t be for this movie, I’m convinced that Taron Egerton has an Oscar in his future.
The rest of the cast are more uneven. Jamie Bell is solid as writing partner Bernie Taupin. His relationship with Egerton’s Elton is sweet and heartfelt, acting as the anchor for the second act. Unfortunately, some of the others appear to be in a different film. Richard Madden plays John Reid as a moustache twirling villain who is slimy and intrust worthy from the moment his appears on screen. The same goes for Bryce Dallas Howard who delivers one of her most uneven performances ever. Both form key relationships and emotional touchstones for the film but are undercut by hammer performances.
Overall, the film is uneven with inconsistent editing choices and performances. However, at its core the story of Elton John and his journey to success and breakdown is elevated by its central performance, some excellent musical numbers and moments of flair and invention that kept me interesting. I don’t think it will generate any Oscar buzz like other biopics but it will make you reappraise the songs of Elton John and ask yourself if you are being the person you really want to be.