Dexter Fletcher may well be the new Ken Russell. In Bohemian Rhapsody, and now in Rocketman, he reveals a taste for overheated theatricality that hasn’t been seen since Russell turned Franz Liszt into a teen idol. The difference is that this much-anticipated bio pic of Elton John never departs too far from formula, no matter how extravagant the song and dance routines.
Considering the almost unbearable self-indulgence of Russell’s movies, one may be thankful that Fletcher prefers to alternate kitchen-sink drama with fullblown excess. He has given us a schematic diagram of his subject’s life that isn’t deep, and probably contains more fiction than fact, but for millions of fans it will push all the right buttons.
Rocketman may be lurid and camp, but it’s a compulsively watchable film that chews up two hours before you notice time passing. It’s like sitting through a succession of riotous video clips punctuated by bouts of maudlin self-hatred. Taron Egerton excels in the lead role, in a performance that distracts us from the banality of the narrative.
The movie begins with a barnstorming scene in which our hero marches into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting dressed as a red devil, with cape and wings. He sits down and starts on the story of his life, which we will absorb as a series of flashbacks.
Elton’s origins turn out to be remarkably similar to those of Freddie Mercury, and not far from the saga of Eddie the Eagle, the British ski jumper who was the subject of Fletcher’s 2015 movie. Young Reginald Dwight is born, in 1947, into a middle class family in Pinner, a suburb on the outskirts of London. We get a step-by-step portrait of his home life and growth to maturity – or at least to adulthood. Reggie’s home may be comfortable but it’s not happy, due to the cold indifference of his father, Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), an ex-soldier who is incapable of expressing affection for his wife or son.
Reggie’s mother, Sheila Eileen (played by a strangely cast Bryce Dallas Howard), is equally wrapped up in her own world. The marriage fractures, and Stanley leaves without saying a word of goodbye. Sheila has already taken a lover – a genial chap with a bodgie hair-do – but we never learn if her promiscuity was the cause of Stanley’s loveless attitude or vice versa. Only grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones), gives Reggie unconditional support and recognises his prodigious musical abilities.
The scene is set for a coming-of-age tale. Reggie gets a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, but gradually becomes involved with the rock and roll scene of the early 60s. He plays piano in a pub band and works as a support musician for a visiting American soul outfit. When he fronts up at DJM records looking for a contract, the boss, Dick James (Stephen Graham) puts him in touch with a young lyricist, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and the most famous song-writing partnership this side of Lennon and McCartney is born.
Reg is now Elton John, having taken his name from two of his former band members, Elton Dean and Long John Baldry. The movie suggests that the new surname actually came from John Lennon.
From this point it’s a plunge unto the maelstrom as Elton rockets to stardom following a breakthrough gig at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. Seemingly within minutes he is topping the American charts and playing to massive audiences. His personal style has evolved accordingly. He now wears the most outrageous costumes, and glasses that cover half of his face. He may not have actually levitated while playing the piano, as this film suggests, but he threw everything into his act.
While Elton’s career is booming his private life is a disaster. It has taken him a long time to come to terms with his homosexuality, a secret that has to be concealed from his fans. His insecurities make him an easy mark for handsome Svengali, John Reid (Richard Madden), who becomes his lover and business manager, in an almost exact parallel with Freddie Mercury’s dependence on another sinister sleaze, Paul Prenter. As his life grows more chaotic and his touring schedule keeps expanding, Elton becomes that rock and roll cliché: the star with the world at his feet who turns to drink and drugs to assuage his deep, abiding loneliness.
The psychology may be plausible, but Fletcher’s free-wheeling account eschews detail and complexity. Elton is shown behaving badly but the message is that he is a good-hearted victim of circumstances, not a monster. As the singer was heavily involved in this film and is listed as one of the producers, it’s hardly surprising he is portrayed in a positive light regardless of his cruelties and dissipations.
Those massive hits everyone knows are threaded through the story in such a way that they become commentaries on aspects of Elton’s life. And it’s not always the star doing the singing – almost everybody has a go, in a movie-length karaoke session. This played out like a singalong soundtrack for my teenage years, an experience that will be shared by countless viewers.
In Bohemian Rhapsody the electrifying moment was the first appearance of the title tune. In Rocketman, the spine-tingler is Your Song, which Elton composes spontaneously, sitting at the piano in his mum’s house. One can see it coming a mile away, but this doesn’t reduce the emotional impact. It’s a shameless ambush that tips a bucket of nostalgia over the audience. As Elton wallows in success and squalor, Fletcher encourages us to abandon our critical faculties and sink deeply into this vat of rancid fairy floss. It would require a steely heart to refuse the invitation.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Written by Lee Hall
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh, Gemma Jones, Charlie Rowe, Stephen Graham
UK/USA, rated M, 121 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 1 June, 2019