Rocketman, review: Elton John movie a heart-racing, toe-tapping, deliriously entertaining triumph

Robbie Collin
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman

Dir: Dexter Fletcher; Starring: Taron Egerton, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Jamie Bell, Harriet Walter, Tate Donovan, Gemma Jones. 15 cert, 121 mins.

Like many of us here at the Cannes Film Festival, the cast and crew of Rocketman must wish that Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t exist.

Dexter Fletcher’s fabulous Elton John musical is a heart-racing, toe-tapping, all-glitter-cannons-blazing triumph on its own terms – but because of its subject matter and crowd-pleasing approach, the early reviews will almost certainly compare it to Bryan Singer’s Freddie Mercury wiki-biopic. (Fletcher was the director drafted in to finish that film, without credit, after Singer was fired by 20th Century Fox for repeatedly failing to show up to the set.)

Well, allow me to reassure you there is no comparison. Putting the two side by side would be like conducting a taste test between a porterhouse steak smothered in tomato ketchup and a smouldering old shoe someone pulled off a bonfire. After the self-effacing salvage job, Fletcher has stormed back with the real, electrifying deal.

Lee Hall’s screenplay ingeniously frames Elton’s life story with a 1990 rehab confessional, as the star, played by Taron Egerton, reflects on the various ingenious and disastrous life choices that brought him to this rock-bottom point.

This allows the film to get away with the most outrageous biopic manoeuvrings on the grounds that, well, it’s how Elton himself would probably tell it. It also allows Fletcher to bring on Egerton cranked up to Maximum Elton at the very start, and within seconds of the actor appearing on screen, you find yourself groaning with relief.

Not only does Egerton have Elton’s look and mannerisms down to an uncanny degree, he also musters up enough of his subject’s signature showmanship to give a performance that’s joyously at peace with its own preposterousness.

The film’s remove from reality also allows Fletcher to deploy a swathe of Elton’s best-known songs however he likes, from montage background tracks to live performances, full-blooded musical numbers, and flights of pure pop fantasy that skate thrillingly between the two.

When Elton first performs Crocodile Rock at the Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles it induces a mass levitation among those who hear it, and I swear I could feel myself rising an inch or two out of my cinema seat. Tiny Dancer is brilliantly transformed into a heartbreaking torch song. Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting induces a contact high as it careers down suburban streets at closing time and through fairgrounds in turbo-charged long takes.

When an Elton John biopic was first mooted around a decade ago, it was suggested as a project for the photographer and sometime music-video director David LaChapelle.

Fletcher and his regular cinematographer George Richmond embrace LaChapelle’s trash-glamour aesthetic, and give the drug-binge sequences and a stylised orgy scene a lurid and syrupy sheen. (Rocketman is hardly Stranger By The Lake, but it doesn’t downplay the excess.)

Yet even the childhood scenes at Elton’s childhood home in Pinner are slightly souped up and off-kilter, with Bryce Dallas Howard slyly camping it up as his mother Sheila, the very pinnacle of Middlesex womanhood.

Of course young Reggie grows into – well, slightly less-young Reggie, who is signed by manager Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is united with lyricist Bernie Taupin (a superb Jamie Bell).

Nailed it: Taron Egerton pulls off the role of Elton John in this deliriously entertaining biopic

During an early gig before he finds his alter ego, another artist tells him: “You’ve got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”

It is over the course of this deliriously entertaining film that he comes to realise these two are one and the same person.

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