Film Review: Rocketman (2019)

Elton John gets in on the self-produced musical biopic game, meaning Rocketman is gonna take a long long time to get anywhere near the truth

“People don’t pay to see Reginald Dwight… 
they pay to see *Elton John*!”

I always find there being something a little suspect about the subject of a biopic being intimately involved behind the scenes, that sense that you’re only being permitted to see a carefully curated version of this particular story (cf Tina the Musical, On Your Feet onstage; Bohemian Rhapsody most recently on film). And Rocketman ultimately proves no exception, with Elton John executive producing and husband David Furnish getting a producer credit, and Wikipedia thus offering up a substantial list of deviations from what actually happened

You might argue that as the film, written by Lee Hall and directed by Dexter Fletcher, isn’t a documentary, it doesn’t need to concern itself with an absolute fidelity to historical record. But I just find it fascinating this need to embellish, so much being smuggled under the umbrella of ‘creative license’ that can’t always be explained away with the ‘needs’ of filmmaking. Things as fundamental as changing the inspiration for Reg Dwight’s stage name from his mentor Long John Baldry to John Lennon, or claiming that ‘Daniel’ and ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’ were the songs he auditioned for with Dick James when neither had been written yet. At what point does that creative license start being straight-up dishonesty?

Maybe it’s not that important in the end, especially if it makes the film better. But I’m not so sure that it does, the relentless puffery obscuring the actual progression of his talent, from unhappy Middlesex childhood to international rock star. So too with the recasting of some of those key early relationships that helped to set him on the way, simply to adhere more closely to the time-honoured rules of your archetypal biopic – there must be pain and obstacles to overcome, sod the actual people! The film’s non-linear structure mitigates a little against some of the predictability and Fletcher’s direction is at its best when it goes full on musical (he has form in the shape of the delightful Sunshine on Leith) as in the split voices of the early ‘I Want Love’. So it’s a shame that this style of number isn’t replicated.  

What we do get is a fully committed lead turn from an entirely game Taron Egerton who performs and prances well in any number of garish costumes (strong work from Julian Day). Doing his own singing is undoubtedly impressive but I’m not sure he ever nails the necessary emotional depth to make us really care about Elton John the man. Stronger work emerges around him with Steven Mackintosh as his repressed father, Gemma Jones as his devoted gran and Jamie Bell as his creative partner Bernie Taupin all bringing pathos to the bits without the songs. And it is fun to spot all kinds of theatrical faves in there – Sharon D Clarke, Jason Pennycooke, Alexia Khadime, Harriet Walter, Celinde Schoenmaker, the list goes on. Altogether though, I’d much rather see the unauthorised version of this biography – “I’m not the man they think I am…”

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