Unlike David Bowie or Madonna, Elton John has always been the same beneath each costume change; no matter how thick the coloured feathers or how spangly the novelty specs, his essential plainness overwhelms even the most eccentric facade. He has never been shy of appearing as himself on film, but only once has he consented to play someone not named Elton John. Even on that occasion – as the Pinball Wizard in Ken Russell’s 1975 film of the Who’s rock opera Tommy – the character was safely within his comfort zone. Diamond-encrusted glasses, cartoonishly colossal footwear, aghast expressions: no Method preparation was required.
Russell, who died eight years ago, would have been an ideal director for Rocketman, a musical about John that combines the jukebox format, where existing hits are strung together to tell a story, with the biopic, which asks that the story in question be at least broadly factual – a Bohemian Rhapsody as opposed to a Mamma Mia! Dexter Fletcher, who directed Rocketman and some of Bohemian Rhapsody (he stepped in when the original film-maker was fired) is a former actor whose credits include Ken Russell’s Gothic, so he’s no stranger to the far-out way of doing things. The new picture falls between those approaches, being neither as feverishly warped as Russell’s films nor as drearily by-the-book as the Queen one.
Fletcher’s strongest idea is to outlaw lip-synching: the cast do all their own singing to new arrangements so that quirks of performance spill over pleasingly into the songs. And it’s hard to imagine Elton John playing himself any better than Taron Egerton does. The stocky, box-faced 29-year-old may have a painted gap between his front teeth, but he nails the frown shaped like an upended U and the bolshy, bare-knuckle swagger of a short man who’ll never stop trying to be tall.
The script hits the standard beats, starting with John’s humble beginnings as Reg Dwight in a house in Pinner, Middlesex, where money is scarce but the production designer has still switched on all the lamps on a summer afternoon. As John’s career soars, the period-ready dialogue mounts up (“Who wants to go to a party at Mama Cass’s?”) and he performs “Crocodile Rock” in Los Angeles in 1970, levitating magically along with his audience. Anyone who complains that the song wasn’t written for another two years will have to quibble also with the laws of gravity in this scene. Once everybody comes back down to earth, so does the film.
Rocketman is a straightforward rise-and-fall-and-rise story in which John goes looking in the wrong places for the love his father denied him: at the bottom of vodka bottles, at the ends of lines of cocaine, and in the arms of a manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), who is even more dastardly than his rubbish wigs first suggest.
No one should expect dissent or analysis from a film that has its subject and his husband among the producers, as they are here, so the screenplay’s tameness is understandable. There is nothing in it as indicative of John’s drug-crazed narcissism as, for instance, the story that he once asked hotel staff to change the weather when it displeased him. His songwriting partner Bernie Taupin becomes a drab Jiminy Cricket figure, forever popping up to urge caution or dispense self-help slogans (“You just need to be yourself and be OK with it”). He’s played by Jamie Bell, who made his name in Billy Elliot, scripted by Lee Hall, who also wrote Rocketman. And did you know John provided songs for the Billy Elliot stage show? Small world. You score my musical, I’ll script yours.
The movie gradually turns into a version of that therapeutic exercise in which the patient addresses those who have wounded him. As John does just that (“Mum, we need to forgive one another”), you ache for the old Ken Russell wildness from films such as Lisztomania, where Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt has his ten-foot-long erection chopped off at the guillotine. What Fletcher gives us instead is crushingly literal: a pub brawl accompanied by “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” or John blasting into the sky during “Rocket Man”. The film dutifully informs us of his charity work and his upcoming retirement to be with his family, ending on a note more redolent of a Christmas round-robin letter than of anything resembling cinema.