Having done startup and emergency repairwork on Bohemian Rhapsody, Dexter Fletcher gets another shot at directing a gay rock biopic – though an opportunity to establish an extended 1970s muso cinematic universe is missed by casting a sexy but evil-seeming Richard Madden as Elton John’s sometime manager/lover John Reid, played in a more sympathetic light by Aiden Gillen in Bohemian Rhapsody. Exec-produced by John and his husband David Furnish, this offers a happier ending than the Freddy Mercury story but follows a similar trajectory – extreme success through talent and sheer flamboyance, personal ups and downs through addictions and bad behaviour, and a triumphant comeback … with the fillip that John didn’t die, and achieved personal happiness in a fourth act that takes place during the end credits montage of this movie.
It opens in the early 1980s with John (Taron Egerton) in full stage clobber – a combination of jester and devil, swathed in sequins and feathers which significantly shed – striding into an AA meeting, and beginning a monologue feature-length flashback. I kept thinking of the other sorry participants who had to sit and listen to all the grandstanding without getting to talk about their problems, which probably weren’t exacerbated by millions and millions of disposable dollars. This frames a rock-pop jukebox biopic on much the same model as the films Hollywood used to make about Cole Porter, Al Jolson or Sigmund Romberg … all the hits, pegged to moments in the hero’s life, lyrics emphasised to underscore the connections (though the film points out that these all came from Bernie Taupin), byte-sized scenes of partying, loving and bad behaviour, and a ton of period décor. This even has montages of headlines and spinning platters. In staging the musical numbers, which include fantastical elements (levitation), Fletcher might have had a look at Absolute Beginners – ‘Saturday Night’s (All Right for Fighting)’ looks especially like a Julien Temple deleted scene – and he certainly drew on Ken Russell’s Tommy, which hands this film the poisoned chalice of having to include John doing ‘Pinball Wizard’ (a song not by him, of course) without trying to compete with either John’s on-film performance or Russell’s staging. NB: as an actor, Fletcher worked with Temple on Pandaemonium, Russell on Gothic and Derek Jarman on Caravaggio.
The segments of the film dealing with John’s family – Mum (Bryce Dallas Howard), Dad (Steven Mackintosh), Nan (Gemma Jones) – even evoke some of the early bits of Tommy, with little Reg Dwight (Kit Connor) proving a piano prodigy as his repressed or disapproving parents practice the lifelong neglect, nagging and lack of affection screenwriter Lee Hall – presumably at John’s direction – blames for his subsequent personal problems. This is quite frank about John’s failings, but that AA group doesn’t seem to have got to the bit about taking responsibility for your actions – here, Dad’s chilliness and Mum’s homophobia take most of the blame, along with some music industry sharks. The most interesting relationship in the film is between John and Taupin (Jamie Bell, excellent), and the bit of ghastly star behaviour that rings truest comes when Taupin tries to get John back on track during the years of excess and is coldly turned away with breakup conventionalities about wanting to write with other people. Egerton does a remarkable job of looking like a younger Elton John but also retaining his more movie-friendly looks – Reg Dwight admits he spent his life making up a fictional character called ‘Elton John’ and I suspect Egerton fits the bill perfectly as his fantasised self-image.
Like Bohemian Rhapsody, this acts as if there was only one sexually ambiguous rock star in the 1970s … as opposed to that being pretty much the dominant mode in that era. And a showcase for the backlist – excluding The Lion King, for obvious reasons – this isn’t the place to argue whether John was a better songwriter than, say, Harry Nilsson or Paul Williams, or even whether (like Queen’s) his act wasn’t pitched to a populist audience (the Queen Mum likes him) in a way that makes him closer to Liberace (glimpsed here) than David Bowie.