Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher, 2019)
I confess to not paying that much attention to Reginald Dwight — although there was no escaping his persecution by The Sun when he sued or his Diana anthem and he cowrote with Tom Robinson — oh and he had those photos at t’Tate. Although, curiously, I’ve always enjoyed his songs when I’ve heard them. I knew the brief outline of his life story and …
Well, I also confess to having something in my eye when seeing the trailer for this biopic — which is produced by his husband and promised to be a warts and all portrait in the way that I gather Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer, but completed by Fletcher, 2018) wasn’t — and so I was intrigued to have this as a Plan B for a Bank Holiday Monday when rewatching Harald Sohlberg was impractical.
Whilst it is a wild ride from beginning to end, it is curious that its weaknesses are its strengths and vice versa. Mr Dwight being still with us, we can’t go the Citizen Kane route and have his life examined by a journalist (and Todd Haynes already did that in Velvet Goldmine for a Bowie-esque glamstar). So we have John at rock (ahem) bottom, storming into a what-have-you-got-anonymous session chaired (I see later) by Sharon D. Clarke from Caroline. So he can tell us where it all started, where it all went wrong…
Yet, it works. We have a disjunction between what he tells us and what he sees — as he is inevitably still in denial. And the songs tell the story.
It is barely two songs in before you can imagine this as a jukebox musical on Shaftsbury Avenue — and Lee Hall could do it, having done Billy Elliott the Musical, with Elton John. This is not to demean the film — but it would be a helluva of spectacle and Fletcher directs with one in the eye for Absolute Beginners and Moulin Rouge. That Matthew Vaughan is a producer did not surprise.
But there’s an itch about the songs — as famously Elton “just” writes the music.
Bernie Taupin writes the words.
Taupin’s intentions become John’s, but it is hardly that Taupin has been sending John coded biographical notes all these years. Is it that with so many songs you can find one that fits? That we fill in the meanings?
It’s not, of course, that Taron Egerton sings all the words as John — sometimes it moves between him and others, this are not just covers.
Egerton is stunning — I was able to suspend disbelief that it wasn’t John, but of course the performativity of the subject helps. Is this the real John? Prior to rehab, presumably he doesn’t know. As I say, I don’t know the originals well enough to judge, but listing to the soundtrack album Egerton passes. As the film progresses, he fills out, his skin deteriorates and you have to remind yourself that he’s not going to die…
Then we close — before a video recreation and the inevitable actor/original photos and the what they did next captions — with the Moment of Judgment which one suspects is redemption. There’s a coming together that reminded me of envois of plays by Miller and Bennett — sequences that work on stage but not on pixels I fear. It also reminds me of the climax of that other rock biopic, The Wall.
But you have to have a heart of stone not to well up and it turns out I don’t.