The tag line for this movie is ‘Based on a True Fantasy’, which is as apt as it is clever. Rocketman is the Elton John story, told half as your standard rags-to-riches biopic, half as an old-fashioned musical where characters burst into song in everyday settings, and what’s that if not fantasy?
The story opens with a figure clad in a spangly red devil stage costume – complete with horns – arriving late for some kind of group therapy session. It’s 1990 and Elton John (Taron Egerton) has entered rehab for the many addictions – sex, drugs, alcohol, food, shopping – that have come in the wake of his stratospheric rise from bespectacled, musically gifted pudgy kid to global superstar and left him an emotional mess. The outlandish campy costume is a kind of visual shorthand for the personal demons that drove Elton John straight from a Madison Avenue gig into a rehab session. The transition was in real life a bit more gradual, but it’s as true as a metaphor can get.
From there we flash back to where it all began in 1950s London where young Reggie Dwight, who shows some promise as a piano-player, lives in the lower middle class suburb of Pinner with his cold disapproving father, his Mum who recognises his talent but is emotionally distant, and his Nan, the only member of the family who provides constant support and love.
The story takes us through the various milestones on the road to success: early piano lessons, playing in bands in local pubs and halls, being noticed by a talent scout, getting a manager, the big recording break, the first hit – standard tropes of the musical biopic.
The most fortuitous milestone of all perhaps, was when a record company manager looking for new material tossed him a folder of lyrics by Bernie Taupin with the invitation to ‘see what you can do with that lot.’
Bernie Taupin went on of course to become Elton John’s lifelong collaborator and close friend. They were a creative partnership whose brilliance equalled that of Lennon and Macartney, although they worked quite differently to that duo: Elton wrote the music, Taupin wrote the words, and they worked alone in separate rooms.
The movie doesn’t shy away from the darker personal aspects of Elton John’s life during his rise to stardom: coming to terms with his sexuality, the toxic relationship with shrewd but cruel lover/manager John Reid, reckless sex and drug-taking on an epic scale, everyone wanting a piece of him.
The storytelling ends at that point where it started: Elton John has achieved all the popular and critical acclaim he ever dreamt of, along with truly astonishing levels of wealth and fame. What he hasn’t yet found is true love, the search for which is really the central theme of the movie. The movie doesn’t venture into his private life after rehab, presumably because that was the point at which Elton John found love and wisdom in his marriage to David Furnish and their adoption of two children, and had stopped feeling the pain, as it says in my favourite Elton John song Daniel, ‘of the scars that won’t heal’. No point taking us too far into the happy ending.
My heart sank at first when it looked like Rocketman was going to be a conventional musical. The bursting into song and dance in unlikely places happens most at the beginning: once when he’s still a little kid daydreaming about being a rock ‘n roll star and the action spills out onto the street where the neighbours join in, then again when he’s an adolescent and the family take solo turns to sing a verse of I Want Love in the drab interior of their house.
As he starts to become a professional musician it becomes easier to incorporate the songs into the storytelling without having to resort to these musical conventions which I’ve always found faintly ridiculous and which keep me away from movies like La La Land. There’s a gradual transition: Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting starts with him singing with a band in a local pub, but he and the action burst out onto the streets where there’s much choreographed fighting and tomcatting going on.
Eventually it becomes more like Cabaret, where the musical numbers occur in a performance venue, which I find easier to digest. The first breakout hit, the tender and uplifting Your Song – comes in the first recording studio scene. Then there’s the thrilling first American gig at the Troubadour Café in Los Angeles, where Bob Dylan’s hat hangs on the wall, Neil Young was in last week, Neil Diamond’s come to see the show, and Leon Russell and half the Beach Boys are hanging at the bar! Elton fights down a bout of intense performance anxiety and brings the house down with a joyfully exuberant performance of Crocodile Rock. There are fantasy elements here but they no longer seem out of place.
The choice and placing of songs in the narrative timeline is obviously biographical, which might bother the literal-minded considering some weren’t written until after the events depicted, and not even by Elton. But it works! All along, in real life AND in the movie, Elton John has chosen those of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics that reflect his life and experience.
Elton John and David Furnish co-produced Rocketman, but it’s no self-indulgent vanity piece. It’s full of charm and rueful wit: in one early scene he’s trying to get through to his mother but she’s too busy watching Liberace on TV, a gay man who had a famously close and loving relationship with his mother.
Taron Egerton is as good in this role as Rami Malek was doing Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Rocketman is a more complex and adventurous movie, and for all its fantasy elements a more serious one.
It gets a bit soppy towards the end, like some of his later soppy songs such as Can You Feel The Love Tonight? But maybe that’s just me.
I was never a huge Elton John fan but I loved this movie. It left me appreciating just what a creative genius he was and I hungered to get home and google what bits were true and what was left out or glossed over and why – such as his 1984 marriage to Renate Blauel. And why doesn’t Candle in the Wind get a guernsey? It must surely be his best-loved song, and the rewrite he did to memorialise Princess Diana became the best-selling single of all time.
Be warned that there is graphic gay sex depicted here, and as for language, watch for a corker of a one-liner from the foul-mouthed cockney manager – a very rude, very butch version of ‘don’t get your knickers in a twist’.