★★★★½ - STUFF
Having tackled the tunes of The Proclaimers and helped bring the story of Queen to life, Dexter Fletcher now takes on the life and songs of the man born Reginald Kenneth Dwight.
But while there are certain similarities in the set-up to Bohemian Rhapsody (both movies open and hinge on a key career moment and have a clear villain of the piece), Rocketman is a very different movie-musical beast.
Where Rhapsody was very much a down-the-line "and-then-we-did-this" rock biopic, this contains far more flights of fancy and songs used to convey a feeling or a mood a la Fletcher's earlier Sunshine on Leith. That means pop-chart pedants should look away, because this is a tale where chronology pretty quickly goes out the window (amongst the songs played to a record executive in the late 1960s are a few bars of 1983's I Guess That Why They Call It the Blues). However, it also results in some truly transcendent moments and heightens the emotion of the sometimes heart-wrenching familial drama on show.
Writer Lee Hall's (Billy Elliot, War Horse) Elton John-journey from chubby Pinner cherub to 1990 rehab uses the clever conceit of a support group meeting to allow the devil-costume clad performer to reflect on what led him to become an "alcoholic, cocaine addict, sex addict, bulimic, shopaholic who also has problems with prescription drugs and anger management". His troubled relationship with his "unreliable and selfish" father and complicated mother is explored, as is his struggle with "crippling nerves" and coping with all the trappings of fame.
As all that suggests, Hall and Fletcher try not to pull many punches. Rocketman aims to convey at least at flavour of all the tiaras, tantrums and tender moments with the people he fancied. And, thanks to a powerhouse performance from Taron Egerton, they certainly succeed. Sporting a succession of outrageous outfits, doing a magnificent job of bringing to life both Elton John's charisma and churlishness and proving more than adept at belting out a tune, Egerton (Kingsmen, Eddie the Eagle) is an, at times, mesmeric presence, drawing the audience in and taking them on this sometimes crazy fantasy.
Mostly more snippets than full songs, the eclectic numbers include a magnificent Pleasantville-esque take on The Bitch is Back, I Want Love as a dinner table lament, reclaiming Tiny Dancer from Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous by staging it as the surveying of party scene, turning Honky Cat into the aspirations-achieved showstopper and using a Greek Chorus of restaurant diners to add extra resonance to Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word. Your Song is a narrative highlight, broken down to reveal Elton John and long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin's (Jamie Bell) special way of collaborating.
All of the songs featured though are delivered with some fabulous visual flourishes and differing styles. Pinball Wizard features a swirling camera showcasing a series of onstage outfits and Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting's action naturally reflects the lyrics.
Which is perhaps one of the movie's few faults. Some of its moves are a little predictable and a few feel simply like a set-up for the inevitable stage version. However, for every obvious I'm Still Standing moment, there's one that surprises – where the film-makers choose another character to deliver the appropriate or poignant lyrics, or a musical cue actually leads somewhere else.
While it's no Moonwalker, Rocketman's splashier moments will be far more challenging to music-but-not-musical fans than Rhapsody was. However, once you let your inhibitions and reservations go, two hours won't seem like any kind of Sacrifice at all.
-JAMES CROOT, STUFF