Take the John Lewis Christmas ad that made your sherry-drunk Aunt Pauline cry into her sprouts and stretch it out over a hundred or so minutes and you’ve got yourself Rocketman, the Taron Egerton fronted musical biopic charting the life and travails of bespectacled piano man Elton John.
The setting is a booze ‘n’ drugs therapy session in the late 1980s where a glassy-eyed Elton – still strapped into the fabulous orange jumpsuit he was wearing when he fled a Madison Square Garden gig – is spilling his regretful, colourful guts to a sharing circle of fellow addicts. Nobody else at this very expensive rehab clinic is permitted to utter a single word, as we selfishly and repeatedly springboard into Elton’s glitzy rockstar stories.
Assigning his best known songs to critical moments in his life is a jigsaw puzzle, but director Dexter Fletcher manages to draw just enough of a lyrical connection to sell each moment convincingly, so long as you don’t think about things too hard.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road soundtracks Elton’s professional split with lifelong friend and lyricist Bernie Taupin, for example, who hops in a cab to go back to his plough, which we must assume is figurative in this context. Elton sings Tiny Dancer as he watches Bernie, wearing blue jeans no less, ditch him at a party to dance with an LA lady, who may or may not be a seamstress for the band. Pretty early on, there’s a fight on a Saturday night. You soon realise the futility of overanalysing the structure of an Elton John musical and just accept the internal logic of the thing.
Most fantastical is the showstopping sequence in which a suicidal Elton, full of vodka and painkillers, sings Rocketman at the bottom of a swimming pool alongside his spacesuit-wearing childhood self, reaching the chorus just as a balletic team of sexy paramedics pump his stomach, jab him with adrenaline, give him a dramatic twirl and wheel him straight back on stage for a sold-out arena show, where he literally rockets off into space.
“Is this good?”, you’ll ask yourself, your head spinning with the ‘it’s a bit much’-ness of it all. “Did I just enjoy that?” But before you can answer, Elton’s back in his private jet, and we’re zooming on to the next chapter of his life.
The film spills over with campy imagination, wavering between down-to-earth reality and full-blown Andrew Lloyd Webber silliness. As a side effect, we never really get to grips with the man’s biography: Elton’s relationships – with family, lovers, managers and fake wives – are whittled down to a single dimension. A weird deal of emphasis is placed on how he was never hugged as a kid, and there’s a conflicting message that’s either about being true to yourself, or destroying your old self to become the person you want to be. Most crushingly, we don’t see any Princess Diana.
But full marks for showing Elton John getting thoroughly laid on screen, something Bohemian Rhapsody had been too cowardly to do. Truly, the man is an inspiration.