Elton John’s life story gets the full-blown musical treatment in Rocketman, an exuberantly imagined tribute to the excess all areas glory days of his 1970s imperial period when he was responsible for five per cent of all record sales in the world and drank and snorted his way to near-oblivion. Shamelessly embracing the dreary conventions of the rise-fall-redemption rock biopic story arc, the film, which stars Taron Egerton as Elton, frames his story as a mammoth therapy session – albeit one in which its protagonist is decked out in a winged devil costume – using this groan-inducing conceit to jump around the timeline of his life with theme-explicating lead-ins that have all the subtlety of a platform shoe banging out a piano solo.
But if this approach initially makes the heart sink, where the film soars is in its willingness to ditch any faux sense of rock n’ roll credibility and stage Elton’s music as big West End-ready song-and-dance numbers, replete with elaborate choreography, wall-breaking transitions and surreal flights of fancy. As the film has it, music courses through every fibre of Elton’s being, and these big show-stopping moments are a fun way of letting us understand the power music held over him, particularly as he transformed himself from a shy specky kid called Reginald Dwight into a world-conquering rock star at a time when that actually meant something.
But the musical elements are also a way of acknowledging the hazy mythologising that goes on with these types of stories. The movie’s timeline, for instance, is illustrated by changes in fashion and music and the thinning of Elton’s hair. Dates are rarely mentioned and years can slip by in the space of a song, which not only removes the need to focus on what happened when, but also removes the need to awkwardly shoehorn in the flashpoint moments of inspiration for his biggest hits – another honking trope of the genre.
That allows director Dexter Fletcher to be a little bold with the use of Etlon’s music, jettisoning, say, Candle in the Wind almost entirely, or being more expressive in his use of the titular Rocketman or classics such as Tiny Dancer and Benny and the Jets. He doesn’t try to dramatise song lyrics in the awkwardly literal way he did with the Proclaimers’ songs in Sunshine on Leith. Not that it would make much sense to do that with Elton John songs given they were written by Bernie Taupin (played in the film by Jamie Bell), whose working relationship and decades-long friendship offers little in the way of personal drama – though largely because they’ve apparently never had an argument.
Instead the drama comes largely from Elton’s destructive self-loathing, a symptom of never being hugged enough as a kid and never being loved enough as an adult – sentiments repeated ad nauseam thanks to Lee Hall’s on-the-nose dialogue. Right from the start we see that Elton never really got over his father’s lack of affection or his mother’s indifference (they’re played by Steven Mackintosh and Bryce Dallas Howard). Consequently, when he falls for his burly Scottish manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), he puts up with what seems to be an emotionally abusive relationship out of some kind of misplaced fear of being alone.
Reid, of course, was also briefly the manager of Queen and, as a character, featured in last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, where he was played by Aiden Gillen. Coincidentally, that film was also partially directed by Fletcher, who was brought in to finish it after original director Bryan Singer was fired. Of the two, this is the more enlightened in its depiction of its protagonist’s sexuality, and even though the film does take a similar finger-wagging approach to his immersion into the debauchery of the underground gay scene of the late 1970s, the way it then quickly skips over Elton’s own subsequent attempt to reject his sexuality by getting married feels like a cheeky corrective: the depiction of banal heteronormative coupledom may well be the film’s most horrifying moment.
Throughout, Egerton does a good impression of Elton on and off stage. He’s a decent singer, wears the platforms and the feather-boas with conviction and is good at delivering the tantrums. Above all, he’s able to capture how performers like Elton John can turn it on when they need to – an all-too-elusive power that may be what’s kept him standing after all these years.
Booksmart sees actress Olivia Wilde make her directorial debut with a ridiculously funny and inventive coming-of-age comedy about two hardworking best friends (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) determined to cram four years’ worth of partying into their final night of high school. The catalyst for this extreme form of catch-up is the sudden realisation that the classmates they’ve looked down on for simply being teenagers and having a good time are all going to colleges just as prestigious as the ones they’ve dedicated their school careers to getting into.
What follows is a joyous female-centric update of a genre that’s not really had a zinger of a mainstream film since Superbad more than a decade ago. Wilde’s protagonists are filthy, funny, unashamedly raucous and enlightened about sex and sexual politics in a way that no generation has really been at their age. The film traverses that new yet familiar territory with utter confidence, expertly subverting clichés at every turn and delivering great gags and brilliant performances. ■