In the opening shot of Dexter Fletcher’s wild, inventive, blissfully energetic musical, Taron Egerton strides – no, stomps – toward the camera, vacuum-packed into an orange, sequined, crotch-hugging jumpsuit, giant devil horns atop his head, platform boots on his feet, an enormous pair of red-feathered wings flapping behind him. He plonks himself into a plastic chair in a drab room and announces to an unwavering doctor, “My name is Elton John and I am an alcoholic. And a cocaine addict. And a sex addict. I also have a problem with shopping.” This is not the campest thing that will happen across the next two hours. Not even close.
If you’re imagining this might be a polite, faithful biopic of a national treasure singer, then hold onto your wig. This turns the life of Elton John – from his early years as a little boy called Reg Dwight to the point at which years of sex, drugs and sublime pop meant he was sent him to rehab – and makes it a huge, unapologetic musical, a hurricane of imagination and exuberance.
John’s life readily lends itself to Fletcher’s chosen treatment. He grew up in a house where neither parent was particularly interested in him then spent his career in search of approval. On stage, he dressed like every day was a Halloween party, covering up his insecurity about his appearance by playing the clown, even as he became a megastar. Offstage he had an unrequited crush on his writing partner, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who became his best friend, then fell into a bad romantic relationship with his manager (Richard Madden), tried to cheer himself up with alcohol, every drug he could find and a whole lot of banging.
John’s songs are used very cleverly to illustrate the different dramas of that life. ‘I Want Love’ becomes a quartet with the young John and his family all pining for the life they wish they had. ‘Your Song’ is Taupin and John’s love song to each other, with two different interpretations. ‘Rocketman’ sings of a career in the stratosphere and a life adrift. Some are just barnstorming production numbers, like ‘Saturday Night’s Alright’, which charges through a night out and gets remixed to include ska and Bhangra influences.
The entire cast throw themselves in with gusto, but none more than Egerton. He’s a powerful singer and can swell to match John’s huge personality, while also quietening everything for some really moving scenes of despair and hurt. Watching him bounce on stage covered in a rainbow of feathers, you see an actor who knows he’s found his moment.
Fletcher’s last film was Bohemian Rhapsody, which he finished off after the original director Bryan Singer was asked to leave. They might sound similar, given the subjects, but there’s little comparison. Where that was cautious, reverent and chaste, this is fearless, honest and sexy (yes, it’s a film about a famous gay man with scenes of actual gay sex). It’s much closer in mood to Fletcher’s wonderful but little-seen Proclaimers musical Sunshine On Leith, a film that was bursting with the joy of existing. Rocketman bursts in a storm of glitter and rhinestones. If you don’t adore it, you’re probably no fun.