Our first glimpse of actor and singer Taron Egerton as the English artiste Elton John is easily the image that best summarises the latter’s biopic, Rocketman. Egerton stomps through a backlit hallway in the very first scene, wearing an orange sequin-laden body suit with feathered crimson red wings and a pair of devil’s horns. Platform heels and a pair of rose-tinted, heart-shaped glasses complete the outfit. But the hallway, as one might expect, doesn’t lead to a stage. It leads to a morbid room with a handful of people sitting in a circle. This is rehab. This is where Elton John, a music legend dressed neither as the devil or an avenging angel, begins telling us his story.
In theatres starting this weekend, Rocketman is every Elton John fan’s dream come true. Though the film is directed by Dexter Fletcher, the two-hour long film is nothing like his previous project, which was also on music legends (Bohemian Rhapsody), perhaps because Elton John himself was closely involved with the film. He was the executive producer.
The film’s not just a tribute and a biography of the music legend, it also takes a chance in daringly packing the film with recreated Elton John hits, including numbers such as Tiny Dancer, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Benny and the Jets, Candle in the Wind and Border Song.
Almost all of Rocketman is a song and dance routine. It’s actually a fantasy musical: what else could it be when at one high point of the movie (and John’s personal life), his body floats up while in concert. And his audience, an adoring crowd in a tightly-packed room, also gets so swept away by his music that they join him as he floats in slow motion. It’d be a shame not to appreciate the film’s theatrical approach. This is the iconic Elton John’s movie after all. He was, and is, an openly queer fashion icon who talks about his past struggles with drugs and alcohol.
The horned angel that we see in the beginning guides us back in time, when Elton Hercules John was but a bespectacled little boy called Reginald Dwight. Caught between a cold, absent father and a bitter, self-centered mother, Dwight is only beginning to play the piano. It is his sympathetic grandmother who lends the young music prodigy support and takes him to London’s Royal Academy of Music after he receives a scholarship. Then, in a matter of swiftly-moving song sequences, Dwight becomes Elton John. A significant precursor to this is a conversation where a fellow artiste tells Dwight, “You’ve got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”
But with fame and boundless wealth come an onslaught of the tidal wave that eventually leads him to rehab. In fact, the film has an adult rating thanks to the trifecta of sex, drugs and booze that has defined the life of many a rockstar. The makers had reportedly tried to tone these down in the hopes of receiving a rating appropriate for younger audiences, but Elton John stood his ground saying “I just haven’t led a PG-13 rated life.”
The lower Egerton (as John) descends on the downward spiral of self-destruction, the more theatrical his outfits become, including a kaleidoscopic chicken outfit replete with a mohawk crafted with feathers. And in memory of a Dodgers (American baseball team) jumpsuit that Elton John wore in October 1975, the movie has Egerton wearing a white and blue suit with thousands of Swarovski crystals for “extra sparkle.” If coloured feathers and rhinestone-encrusted eyewear come snowballing into current fashion trends, it’ll be safe to point fingers at the Rocketman and his movie.
Toxic relationships in the life of a musical prodigy who just wants to be loved is actually the bedrock of the person portrayed as Elton John. His was a loveless childhood that turned into a tumultuous adulthood. But one does wonder if the portrayal of his family, or others like his manager and lover John Reid (played by Richard Madden) is overly harsh, but this is Elton John’s story to tell.
Beyond all the glamour and riches, one can’t ignore the tenderness one feels for Egerton's character when he jumps into a pool for what turns out to be a splendid underwater sequence. Free-falling into water after a pill overdose, he sings “I’m a rocket man; rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone.” The movie undoubtedly does justice to the showman’s real life stage antics meant to shock and thrill, but it also reveals the raw hunger for love that drove John to make the music he made. Even when the music fades away, all that glitters is Elton John. Now and forever. The movie has ensured that.