Movie review: Rocketman

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

If your expectations of a biopic of John Elton include a healthy dose of bright, colourful theatrics and orchestral indulgence set to to epic, then Rocketman, written by Lee Hall and directed by David Fletcher, will not even come close to disappointing.

Inventive and imaginative to degrees that delight and dazzle in equal measure, the film is a vibrantly, magically real take on the life of the best selling pop icon otherwise known as Reginald Dwight which runs its course very much more like a musical than your standard tick-the-boxes biopic.

What may surprise you, a rare commodity in films these days where adherence to convention is almost akin to dogma, is how dark the film’s subject matter is, given its glossy, sequin-sporting visual garb.

If you’re familiar with Elton John’s life, and to be fair not everyone is since a great deal of time and effort has been invested in cloaking him in the clothes of an entertainer and not the subject of prurient gossip, you will be aware that off-stage he was a man who struggled with lack of acceptance from his father, Stanley (Steven Macintosh), an offhand, almost negligently-abusive treatment from his mother, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), his own sexuality and, as a result, addictions aplenty.

In fact, the film which begins in a fashion that is simultaneously suitably melodramatic and intensely, emotionally-real, makes it clear from the very beginning that for all his astonishing success, Elton John was a man for a good long while who teetered on the edge of self-annihilating oblivion.

As a broad brush stroke tale of celebrity success, there’s nothing desperately new in that particular spin; after all, every dramatically-realised biopic of a major creative figure, particularly those in pop or rock music, involves a meteoric rise, a cataclysmic and, if the artist is lucky, a sobering realisation of what life really means.

Rocketman is no different in that regard, offering up an often sobering tale of one’s man’s titanic, cocaine and alcohol-laced battle with his own near-innumerable demons, which finally sees him walk out, according to the film’s narrative at least, from a concert performance at Madison Square Gardens in New York straight to a rehab clinic where the film opens.

Elton is dressed in his bright-orange, horned concert get-up, and as he sheds layers upon emotionally confessional layer in the therapy group that forms the super-structure of the narrative, so the on-stage finery comes off until Elton John sits in his track suit, stripped of his public persona and years of protective, ultimately destructive layering, and vulnerable in a way that attendees at his concert would never guess was possible.

But it is, and it is to Elton John’s credit – he acted as one of the film’s executive producers – that the film figuratively, and at times, literally, bares all. never stinting on the consequences of a life whose only real emotional bright spots were his grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who believes in him and supports him when all anyone else in the family resorts to is mockery or indifference, and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, brilliant in his role as Elton’s brother from a different mother).

If it sounds like an emotionally barren life, where drugs, alcohol, bulimia and a shopping addiction sought to divert from and paper over the damage, you’d be right; winningly, though, Rocketman, invests this oft-sorry tale with a playful visual aesthetic which manages to be give the serious stuff due deference while keeping the entertainment-o-meter on maximum.

It’s a tricky balancing act that the film pulls off with Elton John’s characteristic performance elan, a seamless melding of intense life issues with a transcendentally bright and effusive delivery that never feels like it is under-serving either aspect.

Part of the way it manages this balancing act extraordinaire is by infusing key moments with the kind of glitzy, spirited brilliance and imaginative playfulness that Elton John has embraced from the start in his on-stage persona.

For instance, at one point we see him as a boy who, having discovered he can play any music on the piano by memory (a gift which sees him, with Ivy’s support, being taught on weekends at the Royal Academy of Music), is avidly learning how to read sheet music in his room at night with a torch when he’s supposed to be asleep.

As the music comes alive for him, the film pans back from his bed to reveal an orchestra playing along with him, before turning to a tuxedo-clad young Elton playing along on a grand piano.

It’s gorgeously magically real, as is the musical-style number where the residents of his entire childhood street dance along to one of his songs until his mum, rather characteristically puts a halt to proceedings, and the moment when, trying to commit suicide at the height of his success, he plunges into a pool to find himself face to face with his younger self playing and singing on the tiled floor.

They may seem like fey accouterments for what is a fairly serious biopic that doesn’t over-dramatise things but also doesn’t hold back on telling it like it actually is, but they succeed brilliantly in underscoring how much these various events either impacted on a formative Elton or were the product of a life starved of love.

Many of his most well-known songs get an outing though not, it should be noted, in a slavishly autobiographical fashion, with many of his tracks soundtracking some early, pivotal moments of his life where clearly, the songs weren’t even close to being written.

Rocketman is a rare and magical thing, often literally, at least in its delivery, reflecting the showmanship, colour and spectacle of Elton John the performer while taking care to give due weight and narrative importance to the life of Reginald Dwight.

What emerges is not hagiographic at all (impressive given John’s direct involvement in the film); rather we get as close to real as you’re likely to get in a biopic portrayal of the artist’s life, which happily, shows on more than one occasion, that he was and is a gay man who “fucked everything that moves.”

Refreshingly, while Rocketman avoids any hint of “straightwashing”, it also doesn’t treat his homosexuality as some oddity either, showing his relationship with manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden, who is all kinds of seductively amorous and cruel, sometimes in the one scene) in all its very human flawed glory and agony, and giving the audience an understanding of why an obviously gay man would end up married to a woman at one point (Renate Blauel, played by Celinde Schoenmaker).

A rich, opulent, colourful, creative and deeply-heartfelt film that ticks all the biopic boxes but still feels its own unique, transportive creation, Rocketman really makes an impact, visually of course in ways lustrously bright and luminous, but in the heart as we stare right into the soul of one Elton John and come to appreciate there is far more going on than just sequins and boas and a mesmerising way with a grand piano.

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