After cleaning up someone else’s musical mess, Dexter Fletcher proves he has the chops to do one of his own.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Like Elton John sculling vodka to drown his miseries backstage then leaping out in front of thousands like the world’s most glamorous showman, Rocketman is a movie of two halves. When it’s all about Elton’s music and whacky costumes, everything comes alive. Once it settles down for some serious business, it gapes open like a chasm. This is a basic rise-and-fall tale told in the shape of a glitzy jukebox musical. Thankfully, the musical bits are very good, and it is captained by a formidable presence in Taron Egerton.
Egerton plays Elton, who was born Reginald Dwight into a working class English household. His mum Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) was too vain by half and his dad Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) loved his jazz records more than his family. Eventually they split, and Elton sank into the comfort of his piano. He met Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who would become his closest friend and most trusted songwriter. Superstardom hit him like a shiny club. Before he knew it he was 25 and living in a three-storey mansion. And then, as all rock star stories must, everything went down the toilet.
If all this sounds familiar it’s because you’ve probably seen it before, as recently as last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. All the beats are the same, so they become indistinguishable. The dorky upbringing. The prodigious talent. The world on a silver platter. The inner demons. The dramatic fall. The phoenix-like revival. If Rocketman had had a different title and a different soundtrack, it might’ve been about Mozart, Elvis or Michael Jackson.
Two things work in its favour: Taron Egerton, and the fact that he does all his own singing. Egerton has already proven that he can handle sly parody in the Kingsman movies and a kind of goofy heroism in Eddie the Eagle (2016). Now he demonstrates a keen understanding of the man he is meant to imitate. He doesn’t sing like Elton and probably doesn’t behave like him either, but we get a sense of Elton’s larger-than-life persona and his desperation in solitude. It’s a performance that paints in broad, confident strokes to evoke rather than tell.
Ultimately, Rocketman isn’t about character, personal tragedy or even the music business. It’s a full-on light show, filled with big dance numbers, costumes that should have their own museum, and the hope that it will razzle and dazzle our attention away from its clumsy storytelling (Richard Madden’s sudden heel turn springs up out of nowhere). The thing is, I quite enjoyed it. Unlike Bo Rhap, which was all sombre and stationary, everyone in Rocketman looks to be having a good time, particularly during a performance of “Honky Cat”.
The movie is directed by Dexter Fletcher, who has a clean vision and straight through-line. His biggest inspirations are perhaps Across the Universe (2007) and Mamma Mia! (2008). Rocketman isn’t as clever as Across the Universe or as plainly entertaining as Mamma Mia!, but it has good feelings, thrilling costume design and an absolutely beguiling lead performance. It may be quite simple, but now that it’s done…
Rocketman is available in Australian cinemas from May 30
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures 2019