Rocketman is Elton John in therapy. The film opens with Elton John, in full stage costume, devil horns and all, quite literally in therapy, confessing himself an alcoholic and a drug addict at a rehab meeting; John then tells the story of how little Reggie Dwight became one of the world’s biggest rock stars.
We’re introduced to little Reggie (Matthew Illesley) at around seven years old, living with his mother Sheila (a gloriously waspish Bryce Dallas Howard) who likes, but perhaps doesn’t entirely love, him, and Ivy (Gemma Jones), his entirely more devoted grandmother, but without Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), a largely absent father who remains emotionally remote even when he’s present.
The story of Reggie’s evolution into Elton is sketched out quite quickly; he wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, he plays in pubs — the sequence which sees a teenage Reggie (Kit Connor) transition into adult Reg is a highpoint of the film, Saturday Night’s All Right (For Fighting) playing as Reg dances out of the pub he’s performing in and through the local fairground, Dexter Fletcher’s direction leading us through a magnificently choreographed set piece that’s impossible not to sing along to.
And this is where the film takes off. Taron Egerton takes over as the adult Reg who meets Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, who can’t quite decide if he wants to be Irish, Geordie or from the West Country, but regardless manages to look a lot like Bon Scott) in the offices of Dick James (Stephen Graham, having an awful lot of fun with a very agreeable amount of very polite nastiness), and becomes in short order the biggest rock star in the world, until his world collapses, brought down in no small part by John Reid (a very lizardly Richard Madden), his manager turned lover turned nemesis.
And to tell the story this way is to suggest a very straightforward, very linear narrative. Fletcher, along with screenwriter Lee Hall, creates a chronology for the songs that suite the story, not the history — young Reggie, as a small child, leads his neighbourhood in The Bitch Is Back, at least a year or two before John would actually have written it, one will presume. But by the time John floats above the stage of the Troubador Club as he sings Crocodile Rock, you simply won’t care. Egerton’s performance as John is so outstanding — it manages somehow to be a little more than just an imitation, even though he looks, and even sings, disarmingly like John — that the film can be forgiven even for an almost Tommy-like descent and resurrection that, had the film not already earnt as much goodwill as it had, might have come across as hokey.
But Rocketman is so hugely entertaining, Egerton so engaging and believable as its central character, that when, during one of the final therapy sessions, during which it’s clear that Elton, himself an executive producer on the film, must surely have had a lot of input into the sequence, which plays out like his chance to say to the people who hurt him — and there were many, notably both parents — the things that he needed to say, you’re still willing to forgive the film and let Elton work through a few last demons on screen
Rocketman, then, is very much an official history. More Mamma Mia than Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s a very personal telling of a very public story, with an astonishing central performance. And if you’re not singing Tiny Dancer as you walk home, you have a heart of pure flint.