To be honest; of new rock and pop talent I am the last to take notice for I’ve never been a fanatic follower. I’m a jazz and classics man, old and new compositions. That love issues from my background, brought up in a family mostly of pioneering professional musicians. If I like pop or rock it’s usually because someone has introduced me to it, insisted I listen by sticking a CD on, or turning up a radio. Most recently it happened by accident; I was knocked out by my first sight of the eye-popping, all singing, all dancing and all legs Taylor Swift. Yes, I’m a ‘Swifty’. I was stunned.
Seduced by Reginald Dwight’s classical training I was introduced to Elton John’s music very late, not unaware of his music, just never bought any of it, but became an instant fan, a passionate convert, playing his most popular, raucous tunes until office colleagues could stomach no longer repetition of a single song played ten times an hour end to end.
What is it about pop-music bio-pics that get so many bums on cinema seats? Mama Mia has been a phenomenal success, and now dominates the television schedules on reruns. The stage show is still on the go in various capital cities and there’s talk of a reunion for the band. The earlier released not-so-good biopic of Freddie Mercury, front man of Queen, managed an Academy Award. In John’s case as in Mercury’s case, their dick led them as much as their need to make music.
I think musical biographies fulfill several basic needs, for viewers and for musicians. For the public the musical bio-pic offers an inside view of celebrity, part truthful, part fictionalised. We see their early struggles, the moment of revelation when the artiste realises they have something the public likes and will buy, and the film gives us a look behind the scenes of rehearsal and staging a concert, in addition to the business practicalities that make up the whole image.
For the artistes and their estates, bio-pics are an unashamed marketing tool, a retread to earn more royalties without taking on exhausting tours that youth could handle but middle-age exhaust. They are a method to both produce and control legacies and public images, and for some, a way to rejuvenate a waning career.
The downside is, all we get on the music side is the same old music, nothing new, perhaps with an orchestral reboot specially for the film. And the excesses of the celebrity get glossed over in place of what amounts to a cinematic recording of a few concerts, and the band rushing from one to another, from tour bus to hotel. To give it its due, Rocketman, about the life of Elton John, delivers some gratification regarding the mystery of artistic creation and popular success, plus a great deal of the associated risks.
As directed by the ponderous Dexter Fletcher and written by Lee Hall, Rocketman gives us the main signposts of Elton’s career. As Elton (Taron Egerton), attending group therapy in an orange feathered and goat-horned stage costume, admits to his addictions – which he lists in an overly-protracted comedic litany that includes drugs, alcohol, sex, and shopping – he’s revisited by his childhood self, and the apparition launches the tale of his musical genesis. We begin with a musical-fantasy routine, the first of several production numbers that decorate the film with a clumsy functionality.
On these journeys I found myself wishing I’d chosen another film to review. The martial choreography and the Steadicam pursuits do little for the songs, but Egerton, bless him, manages gamely to do his own singing throughout which helps immensely to save us suspending our disbelief watching a singer miming to the real artiste.
Egerton is not an actor I found to have much presence, a serious handicap when trying to recreate the persona of Elton John. Tom Hardy was attached to star and the film went into development for nearly three years, then Hardy dropped out of the lead role. Goodness knows what the unsympathetic Hardy would have made of the role.
Rocketman tells the story of a misunderstood child who never overcomes his emotionally arid upbringing. Born Reginald Dwight, the young John displays a precocious sunburst of musical talent at the family piano. But his father, Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), a jazz aficionado, is harsh and remote, and his mother, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), absorbed in life’s daily struggles and lacking any emotional satisfactions of her own, is indifferent to her child’s exceptional talents.
Fortunately, his grandmother, Ivy (Gemma Jones), is at hand. She does her best to foster Reggie’s blossoming talent, making sure that he benefits from a scholarship to music school and impressing upon him the importance of taking advantage of the few opportunities that life provides. And so, in classic psychoanalysis, Elton’s musical career and gay inclinations are fostered by a warm, caring female guardian.
The plot dutifully works its way through the breakup of Elton’s parents, his mother’s remarriage to a man named Fred (Tom Bennett), who has a rock-and-roll bent, and his abandonment of classical-piano studies to work in a bar band. There he makes his first contact with American and black musicians, one of whom gives him what’s presented as his first kiss from a man. He also delivers a crucial line that sets the tone for the rest of the film: “You’ve got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”
At this moment the film comes alive despite Fletcher’s clunky direction, the movie catching dramatic energy at last. Reggie drops into the office of a small record label and, taking the first name of Elton from a band mate and the last name of John from Lennon, promotes himself as a songwriter. The rest they say is history, or the stuff for a bio-pic.
From this point onward the story moves with good pace. We see hard-nosed and unsentimental business sense at work behind the birth of a star, and as is the way of mass celebrity, Elton’s increasing alienation from the public persona that he creates.
His life-long lyricist and partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) makes his entrance in a mundane way, an envelope of lyrics past to him by a music producer, lyrics that provide the crucial springboard for John’s songwriting and performance. I thought this one of the film’s best moments – there’s not many – the one that defines it and the musical-bio-pic genre together. Sitting down at the piano at his family’s house, Elton puts the lyrics to Taupin’s “Your Song” above the keyboard and, in a few seconds, picks out the tune to which he sets them. Well worn cliché it may be, and is, it still works. Later, I read that in reality Elton claims he actually wrote the song in “about twenty minutes.”
So, not a great film, and not a very good one either, but it’s with music that we stay in our seat enjoying the pleasure of rehearing the numbers gift wrapped in biographical detail that take us behind the scenes but not necessarily into what propels the artiste other than his eternal memories of his painful childhood and adolescence.
Rocketman depicts pathos and makes it seem pedestrian. Elton complains, in one of his disputes with Bernie, that he himself, the front man, is the one who can’t walk undisturbed in the street. He suffers bitter disappointment at the failure of his relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden), his manager and romantic partner, who, early in Elton’s years of stardom, warns him that revelations of his homosexuality would destroy his career and advises him to create a faux public relationship with a woman.
Rami Malek’s performance in the Freddie Mercury bio-pic. Bohemian Rhapsody, (same director – sigh!) lifted a mediocre movie. There’s nothing comparable in Egerton’s performance, which, though energetic, merely walks through key moments in the singer’s career and personal life. I’m left wondering if Elton ever had any fun. Of insight, there is none. Blame that on executive producer … Elton John.
- Star Rating: Two stars
- Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden
- Director: Dexster Fletcher
- Writer: Lee Hall
- Cinematographer: George Richmond
- Composer: Mathew Marginson
- Running time: 2 hours 1 minute
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?