Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John biopic is an exuberant, rocket-fuelled film that also added a shiny bit of much-needed glamour to this somewhat subdued Cannes red carpet. Sir Elton and his husband David Furnish were producers on the movie, which risked us seeing a hagiographic version of John’s colourful life. Instead, Fletcher gets beneath the sequins and lays the singer bare, warts and all.
First off, let’s get the Bohemian Rhapsody comparisons out of the way. Despite sharing many similarities – the dodgy producers, the failed marriages and the difficult parental relationships – there is one significant difference: Elton John’s homosexuality is declared early on, both in terms of the film’s narrative arc and in the singer’s life, and there are scenes of him having sex with his long-term partner and manager John Reid (a very dashing and dastardly Richard Madden). This, plus the swearing and drug use, has meant an R-rating for the film, but it also gives us a more honest depiction of the man.
This is not just a biopic of a musician, it’s an actual musical. Think Billy Elliot with a twist of Dennis Potter all glued together with Elton John’s back catalogue and a variety of characters who suddenly segue from speech into song. For most of us who have listened to John’s music over the years, there has been little interest in giving his songs much thought, but here Fletcher uses John’s famous hits at key moments to enhance their autobiographical impact.
Performing most of those songs is Taron Egerton, who completely embodies John, gap teeth and all, and whose voice more than does justice to the man he is portraying. We first see him at peek sequin, striding down a corridor in a dazzling orange ensemble, feathers well and truly ruffled. He is walking into the first of many AA sessions and throughout the film he gradually peels away more and more of the costume before we finally see the man beneath. Using this device, Fletcher peels away at the persona of John. Stripped of the specs and the Swarovski, though, we still have essentially the same man we’ve been watching throughout the movie: an incredibly gifted and troubled musical genius with mother issues.
John’s fraught relationship with his vain uncaring mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and cold authoritarian father (Steven Mackintosh) is very much the focus throughout the film and a little too heavy handed, with little Elton (then Reggie) always asking for hugs that are not forthcoming. In fact, there are a few other moments that clunk heavily onto the screen for there is little room for subtlety here. (On a side note: I am not sure that John Lewis Christmas ad would have been made after this film’s release.)
Elton John wouldn’t have made those millions in the 1970s if it hadn’t been for Bernie Taupin. Taupin is played with great warmth by Jamie Bell and there is a real focus on their fifty-year friendship; this film a tribute that significant relationship that gifted us so many songs. In fact, both Bell and Madden as the handsome villain put in fine performances, but this is Egerton’s film and he plays this honky cat with gusto. It’s a glittery and very occasionally gritty tribute to one of the world’s most prolific and talented purveyors of pop.