james debate
james debate

Wednesday 22 May 2019

Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Written by Lee Hall
Produced by Adam Bohling, David Furnish, David Reid, Matthew Vaughan
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden
Studio Rocket Pictures
Running time 121 minutes

rocketman 2019 film elton john taron egerton queen rami malik bohemian rhapsody oscar academy

I was sceptical about seeing Rocketman. The new Elton John biopic came to within a whisker of making it onto this year’s Hot List, but ultimately I was put off by the feeling that there was something a bit cheap and opportunistic about the whole thing. I was naturally sceptical of another studio putting out a rock and roll biopic so soon after Bohemian Rhapsody’s award winning run, even more so with the unusual decision to depict a biographical film in the form of a jukebox musical, one which shoe-horns existing songs into a context for which they weren’t written. Fortunately this is one of those situations where I am glad to admit that I was wrong.

Rocketman does not officially release in cinemas until later on this week, but I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a preview screening, and I have to say it was one of the more enjoyable cinema excursions in recent times. 

I have already mentioned Bohemian Rhapsody once in this post. Given the similar subject matter and proximity of release it is perhaps only natural that people will make the comparison. Still, I don’t like to review things by comparison, so I will discuss it only once more, and very briefly. Rocketman is a considerably better movie than Bohemian Rhapsody. From the filmmaking, to the writing, to the acting, just about every element of Rocketman on another level to Bohemian Rhapsody, so much so that to even compare the two in terms of film quality is a bit laughable. Still, it has to be remembered that despite its modest success on the awards’ circuits, Bohemian Rhapsody was given quite mediocre reviews by the critics, so I will go even further. Rocketman is not just a better film, it is a very good film indeed in its own right.

This is, of course, the biopic of Elton John. A latter-day John in rehab forms the framing device for the singer's life story, from his early childhood to first commercial success, and ultimately his self-destructive spiral and comeback. It's the classic rock-star's parable, uniquely told through some visually spectacular set-pieces and extravagant musical numbers.

And extravagant they are. There's no faulting this film for its sense of style. This is a visual treat from its flamboyant set design and abundant use of colour to its sumptuously indulgent camera shots. Things start off somewhat slowly and more in the mould of a traditional biopic, until the turbulent events of John's childhood smash all semblance of John's grounded reality and send him into the wild journey of his career. As John's mental health deteriorates, so too does each scene become increasingly surreal and chaotic, blurring into one another until even John can't tell where he is from one moment to the next.

Of course, it helps that the music is this good. Ordinarily I find it a bit tacky when a musical forces existing songs into its story, with lyrics that clearly weren't written for the script. Mamma Mia and David Bowie's Lazarus are prime examples of this that come to mind. But for some reason it didn't bother me here. Perhaps it is because the set-pieces are surreal and abstract enough that you don't try to take them as literal depictions of narrative, or perhaps the songwriting is such that it simply better lends itself to different contexts. Whatever the reason, it works a treat here, and several moments in this film even gave me goosebumps with just how brilliantly it was all choreographed.

But above all it is the electric performance of Taron Egerton that steals the show. Egerton throws everything of himself into this role, capturing the soul and energy of his subject right down to a tee without ever resorting to impersonation. It helps that Egerton turns out to be a fantastic singer, more than doing justice to these classic tunes. Egerton is hardly a new face in the industry, but this nevertheless feels like a career making performance, one that will surely see him launched into the awards circuit and those upper echelons of stardom.

It is much to this film's credit that it does not shy away from the dark elements of John's life. Unlike other musical biopics, this is not a sanitised depiction of his life. The full gamut of John's narcotic use, psychological issues, and sexual extravagances are on full display, and the result is a story that is disarmingly honest and personal.

If there is one main criticism, it is that after spending two hours building up to John's complete breakdown, the whole mess gets resolved far too quickly. There is no depiction here of the struggle to recovery, of the misery of getting free of addiction. Falling to rock bottom was a journey, but getting back up again seems far too easy.

Similarly there are times where the psychological exploration of the film's troubled subject feels only little more than skin-deep. It is a torment that gets told primarily through decades old lyrics and figurative dance numbers more than actual analysis or discussion. Rocketman certainly doesn't shy away from the topic, but seems content to give viewers the headline and move on, rather than delving further into the detail, or more importantly, the struggle to overcome.

Ultimately these are minor criticisms that can be forgiven for the sake of artistic licence. While there are moments where you wish they would go further, Rocketman nevertheless manages to capture the bright highs and dark lows of being an artist better than most films, and does so in a way that is constantly exhilarating and ultimately hugely uplifting.

Rocketman makes for thrilling viewing. It is extravagant, outrageous and over the top, capable of beauty and brilliance, ugliness and folly. It is a mesmerising ride that never falls anything short of hugely entertaining, just like its subject.

Newer Post Older Post Home