The long-awaited Elton John biopic captures the absurdity and artistry of one of the most impressive pop performers of all time
The history of the music biopic is littered with many corpses, both figuratively and literally. Val Kilmer nailed Jim Morrison as a shamanistic lounge lizard in Oliver Stone’s flawed but worthwhile The Doors; Angela Bassett’s blew the roof off Nutbush with her powerhouse portrayal of Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to do With It?, Joaquin Phoenix painted a nicotine-stained portrait of languorous self-destruction in Walk The Line, and Gary Busey was sublime on the day the music died in The Buddy Holly Story.
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However, for every smash hit rock flick, there have been numerous flops. Very few reservations linger over Dexter Fletcher’s madly entertaining life of Elton John, the suburban boy wonder piano player who became the most unlikely of rock superstars in the gauzy seventies, before morphing into knowing self-parody as the queen bitch of the eighties and nineties. If there was ever a pop star who ate himself and, indeed, everything else, it is Elton.
Fletcher, of course, was the man who was parachuted into the beleaguered Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody after the departure of Bryan Singer. Dexter righted the ship to turn the Freddie Mercury story into one of the most successful movies of 2018, much to the chagrin of grumbling critics.
There are comparisons to be made between that movie and Rocketman. For a start there are the many biographical and historical intersections in Elton and Freddie’s lives but Fletcher, who had to depart Rocketman to do the fix-up on Bo Rhap (as the cool kids call it), seems to have taken the overly idealised look and design of the Queen movie back to tell the life of Elton.
But - crucially - freed of the controlling, dare we say, squeamish Brian May and co, and with the full approval of his refreshingly honest subject, Fletcher has a lot more scope here. So much in fact that’s he’s upended the tired conventions of the music biopic and made a freewheeling musical fantasy that has a streak of madness at its heart.
Narrative arcs are bent out of shape and niceties such as a chronological timeline are largely ignored in order to tell the rise, fall and rehab of Elton in the form of an all-singing, all-dancing rock opera where the actual songs tell the tale of surreal highs and crushing lows.
A rumbustious fairground sequence set to Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting has more than a touch of Ken Russell’s Tommy; Elton’s debut US gig at the Troubadour in LA sees both the performer and the audience of the beautiful and the blissed-out actually levitate to Crocodile Rock; and later, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me becomes a sad duet between a much older and dejected Elton and his future wife, Renate Blauel.
So it’s a pretty unreliable memoir but one that captures the vertigo of success of this scale (at one point Elton was responsible for 4% of all record sales worldwide) and kudos to Fletcher for having the verve and audacity to carry the whole thing off.
As with Rami Malek’s central role as Mercury in Bo Rhap, all eyes will be on Taron Egerton as Elton. Using the framing device of the man recalling his life while slumped in AA, the story unfolds in flashback, from a stifling childhood in Pinner to jet set trash and LA excess as glam rock’s very own Liberace, and Egerton really nails all the insecurities and arrogance of a man who could really be a monster.
The supporting cast is equally impressive. Jamie Bell is understated and serious as Elton’s songwriter Bernie Taupin and Bryce Dallas Howard excels as Elton’s flighty and airily unimpressed mother, a woman who was clearly a huge influence on her son. Richard Madden as Elton’s caddishly good looking manager and lover John Reid is another figure who will exploit the singer's vulnerabilities and then cast him aside.
However, given our anti-hero's legendary honesty, there is a disappointing coyness when it comes to the portrayal of his biblical drink and drug intake and his sex life. Fletcher’s camera seems well-practiced in the art of looking away at the crucial second in the style of late-night seventies TV smut. I was hoping for more honesty from Elton, the film’s executive producer and a man who has always known the therapeutic value of speaking his mind and damning the consequences.
Egerton delivers the songs without lapsing into parody and the tragicomic tone really does capture the absurdity and sheer artistry of one of the most impressive pop performers of all time.
Somehow, the idea of an Ed Sheeran biopic looks even more pointless now.
Alan Corr @CorrAlan2