Rocketman opens with a dramatic shot of its hero, pop legend Elton John (Taron Egerton), purposefully striding down a long corridor towards a brightly lit entrance. As he draws up to the doors in his winged and horned stage outfit, he throws them open and bursts triumphantly on to the stage of … a rehab meeting.
It's a nice twist on the usual "triumphant comeback gig" opening we're used to in rock biopics, which usually then rewind to see how we got here. The Rocketman opening suggests that, having been called in to finish off Bohemian Rhapsody in an uncredited director's role following Bryan Singer's sacking, director Dexter Fletcher wants to do things a little differently now he has a biopic all of his own – and a credit – to work with.
He certainly achieves that. Whereas Rhapsody – a film which we can't help comparing to given the timing, shared director, and shared lead villain of Machiavellian music manager John Reid (Richard Madden) – was very much a traditional biopic; Rocketman takes us more down the road of a full blown musical. There are big, staged song and dance numbers, and the musical scenes are used as a part of the narrative rather than an occasional showpiece break from it.
It makes for a great spectacle, and the film looks in parts like it could have been pulled directly from the stage of a glitzy West End musical, appropriately enough for a subject who was prone to his fair share of glitz on-stage over his long career.
The major problem with this approach, however, is that it doesn't really allow us to scratch the surface of the characters, all of whom come across as archetypes. John himself is a whiny, privileged, needy, drama queen – even the scenes where we witness his frosty childhood with a disinterested father and a self-obsessed mother don't elicit that much sympathy as we know he'll be bursting into song again soon enough and all will be right with the world.
Perhaps the most rounded character in the film is John’s long-time writing partner Bernie Taupin (Bell), which is ironic since, given that he wrote almost all of the song lyrics that are being used to propel the story, this should perhaps be his story more than John’s. But Taupin doesn’t bounce around on stage dressed like a Christmas tree, so nobody knows who he is.
There is a refreshing honesty to the film. While Rhapsody markedly sanitised the life of the late Mercury, the still-living John was reportedly adamant that this should be a warts and all version of his life, and with lines like, "I started being [difficult] in 1975 and I haven't stopped since," he's certainly not trying to portray himself as anything better than he may be. That said, the underlying sense of victimhood from a man with an estimated worth of around $250M elicits limited sympathy, and nobody actually forced you into a life of debauchery, you know Elton?
The film's undoubted high point is Egerton's performance. He's becoming quite the go-to star for these mimicry roles, following his turn as Eddie the Eagle in the 2016 film of the same name, and he has John's look and mannerisms down to a tee. He even performs all the film's songs himself, and though I'm no John aficionado, I did find myself having to check I was right about that when I got home, so convincing were his efforts.
In further Bohemian Rhapsody comparison, Egerton seems likely to follow in Rami Malek's footsteps with an Oscar nod for his performance. It's perhaps that quest for Oscars that led to another of the film's strange narrative choices. The story stops in 1983, with John coming out of rehab and releasing I'm Still Standing, with a show stopping reconstruction of that song's video closing out the film. The 35-years since are ignored, save for a series of textual announcements during the closing credits that John has been sober for 28 years, fell in love, got married and other such titbits that you would think play a fairly major role in John's life.
Could the film makers have been so determined to make an Oscar-worthy movie that they simply chose to ignore all the happy parts of John’s life and focus solely on the drama and misery? The film is an undoubted spectacle, and audiences will love the costumes, the music and the huge set pieces. But in Dexter’s attempts to marry this with a deep and moving look at a traumatic period in his subject’s life, he actually produces a film that seems quite shallow and, at risk of sounding cynical, a superb, headline-grabbing advert for John’s current farewell world tour.
Rocketman is released in UAE cinemas on June 13