There’s an interesting theatrical feel to Lee Mack’s screenplay and Dexter Fletcher’s direction of this Elton John approved film about the singer’s early life.
It opens dramatically with what looks like a red devil emerging from hell, which then comes down with a bump to the sight of a plump and raddled looking guy in a sweaty stage costume bursting into a rehab therapy group and taking it over, in order tell the story of the yellow brick road he has walked from a disturbed suburban childhood to fame, riches and, as he is at this point of his life, a total mess addicted to every substance known to pop stars. That man is of course Elton John and this musical reimagining of his life is certainly no respectful hagiography.
The order of telling is chronological but the treatment is fantastical, laced as it is with often dazzling production numbers using John’s music and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, sang impressively by Taron Egerton as Elton, which aim to take us inside the man’s emotional experience. It doesn’t always totally succeed in that aim but it is still mesmerising to watch.
We first meet Elton as little Reg Dwight (Matthew Illesley) living in Pinner with his mother Sheila Eileen (a convincingly English sounding Bryce Dallas Howard), his doting grandmother (Gemma Jones), who encourages his early musical talent and later his emotionally stunted father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), whose love the little boy craves but can never win. Good use here of the song “I Want Love” sang by the various members of the family. The early rock n roll era is evoked with Kit Connor as teenage Reg, belting it out in the pub, which then develops into an impressive production number in a fairground with a strongly macho male dance ensemble, after which Egerton takes over the role and we’re into the well worn territory of a rock star’s rise to fame.
Good performances here from Stephen Graham as Dick James, who first put Elton under contract, Charlie Rowe as Ray Williams, presented here as James’s assistant and most particularly Jamie Bell as Bernie, Elton’s spiritual brother, lyricist and lifelong friend. Bell makes a strong impression, though the character gets a bit squeezed onto the sidelines of the story as Elton’s life and indeed his costumes both get more flamboyant.
With the rising star’s first big hit enter Richard Madden as the saturnine John Reid, the man who became Elton’s lover, manager and according to the film was largely responsible for leading him into addiction and squeezing him cruelly both emotionally and financially. You know Reid is going to be trouble when we first meet him observing Elton in the studio. He looks like a wolf sizing up his dinner.
As well as singing well, Egerton gives a good performance, taking his character from a shy, insecure and slightly nerdy young man to a glamorous star, who still carries that insecure man inside him to the point of near self destruction and finally self realisation. Elton’s life after that, his work for AIDS charities and his happy marriage to David Furnish, one of the producers of the film, is dealt with briskly in a series of end photos and captions.
The film doesn’t go as deeply into its main character as it might have done but it is very entertaining and those well known songs are imaginatively employed and give it a good emotional punch in the dramatic context of the story. It could also well follow a previous Hall and John collaboration Billy Elliot and evolve into a hit stage musical one day.