by Kaleem Aftab
- CANNES 2019: Dexter Fletcher’s biopic of Elton John needs more fuel, opting for melancholy over glitz
British director Dexter Fletcher was the man who got last year’s mega-hit Bohemian Rhapsody [+see also:
film profile] over the finish line following the departure of Bryan Singer, but was too late to get his name on the credits. This time Fletcher’s name features on the poster as he tries to sprinkle some of that same magical stardust over the life story of Elton John. The resulting film, Rocketman [+see also:
interview: Dexter Fletcher
film profile], has played Out of Competition at the Cannes Film Festival and is surprising in that it opts for melancholy over glitz.
Taron Egerton, who was so brilliant as Eddie Edwards in Fletcher’s humorous ski-jump biopic Eddie the Eagle [+see also:
film profile], plays John. It’s a performance that lacks charm somewhat, as it is a bit hard-edged. But in Egerton’s defence, it may be because we meet the singer at the lowest point of his life, looking like a costumed superhero at an addiction rehabilitation facility and talking to fellow addicts. Yet for all of John’s woes, in real life he always comes across as likeable, which was why he sold so many records, and at first this lack of charm makes it hard to empathise with him as we are taken on a journey back to his childhood to explain just how the biggest singer in the world could have ended up at such a low ebb.
The initial scenes show John as a child and the distress he feels when his parents split up. This affects his self-confidence, especially as his dad has no interest in him and his mum (Bryce Dallas Howard) is only interested in bullying him. In his adolescence, he struggles with his sexuality, to the extent that he needs another singer to point out what is patently obvious to everyone.
In between the drama are big musical set pieces that feel a bit flat, almost like they were made by the director of Sunshine on Leith [+see also:
film profile], rather than the helmer of Bohemian Rhapsody. But these musical sequences get better as the film goes on, especially during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, when a circling camera spins around the grand piano to reveal different Elton John looks through the ages. There is also a rendition of “I’m Still Standing” acted out on the beach in Cannes.
The main crux of the film is that John is in love with John Reid, played with Machiavellian mendacity by Richard Madden. Reid was John’s first boyfriend and also his manager for 28 years, and is the villain of the movie. He looks after himself before anyone else and never gives the singer the love that he so desperately craves. Yet even when John is shown affection, such as by his songwriter Bernie (Jamie Bell), he rejects it. It’s when dissecting these relationships that the film works best, as it becomes a character study of how fame and fortune mean so little when your personal life is a wreck. To the film’s enormous credit, it does not shy away from John’s homosexuality, and if anything, it doesn’t explain his decision to marry a woman properly.
On the technical side, the costumes are amazing, and the sets evoke memories of pubs from a bygone era and record stores of yesteryear. John is nearly always seen sporting oversized spectacles. This is where the glitz goes to play when the melancholic tone of John’s self-assessment occupies centre stage.
Rocketman is a Paramount Pictures (USA) presentation of a Marv Films (UK) and Rocket Pictures (UK) production, in association with the USA’s New Republic Pictures. US firm Good Universe handles its international sales.
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