Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Fletcher and his star Taron Egerton fling themselves flamboyantly into John’s life, riffing on events, giving them a surreal spin but always keeping how John is feeling about each moment front and centre." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Framed by Elton John's rehab, this biopic doesn't look to sugar-coat the star’s demons, plunging us less into a chapter-and-verse story of the John’s life than the emotional journey it has taken him on.

To this end, Dexter Fletcher and writer Lee Hall – whose film premiered at Cannes earlier this week – embrace the freedoms that the musical genre has to offer. So the script is able to ignore specific chronology in favour of significant beats in the musician's life, while the director breaks from naturalism to allow emotions to be expressed through the music and, physically, through choreography. Julian Day’s costumes, too, though inspired by John’s wardrobe, have been reimagined here and given a sort of additional excess that Baz Luhrmann would be proud off, but without forgetting their chief role is in helping to reflect the singer’s mental state.

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Although we all know comparisons are odious, it’s almost inevitable that many people’s thoughts will, at least briefly, flit to Bohemian Rhapsody ahead of seeing this, not just because of the similar time period covered but also because Fletcher stepped in to finesse that film, uncredited, after Bryan Singer was fired. But where the Freddie Mercury biopic ticked off a checklist of events in his life as though studying a Wikipedia entry, Fletcher and his star Taron Egerton fling themselves flamboyantly into John’s life, riffing on events, giving them a surreal spin but always keeping how John is feeling about each moment front and centre.

That means that while it might play a bit fast and loose with the actual events, there’s a gut-level honesty to the emotion, particularly as it explores ideas of John’s early unrequited love for Bernie Taupin (played with real heart by Jamie Bell) and the manner he fell hook, line and sinker for producer John Reid (given a real edge of danger by Richard Madden’s performance) – with his sexuality treated as matter-of-factly as anything else in the film. It also doesn't pull its punches when it shows how destructive his addictions became, leading him to lash out at others and almost kill himself.

The free-wheeling approach allows Fletcher and co to use any of John's music to illustrate any point of his life, so they step back in time to consider him as a child to tunes including The Bitch Is Back, showing him as fiercely talented but desperately vulnerable, his need to be hugged by his cold father (Steven Mackintosh) filled with a melancholic yearning. Later, we see him literally float with exhilaration as he performs, while we also join him as the cycle of addiction becomes dizzying. Excellent arrangements Matthew Margeson allow songs to be split into duets and other permutations, as required. Rather than simply miming as Rami Malick did – albeit with star quality – in Bohemian Rhapsody, here Egerton and the rest of the cast step up to the mic, which also brings a freshness and free-spirtedness to the material. By framing this as part fantasy, we're able to go with the flow in terms of the fact that, of course, the words here are Taupin's and not John's, accepting their ability to illustrate his life in any case.

Like a piano counterpoint, we're able to see the singer's public persona contrasted with his offstage feelings about love and life. Egerton – who played Eddie The Eagle in his last collaboration with Fletcher – may not be a dead ringer for John but that's is also unimportant, he's got the gestures down and does a great job of conveying the singer's turmoil.

Those expecting things to be ‘true to life’ may be disappointed. For example, he was actually inspired to clean up his act by a teenager, Ryan White, from Indiana, a haemophiliac who was infected with HIV through blood treatment and who died in 1990. His death led John, who had become a friend of the family, to set up his AIDS foundation. In his book Love Is the Cure, John wrote: “When his eyes closed, mine opened – and they’ve been open ever since.” Here, those events are left untold in favour of a more fantastical imagining, set to the much earlier track I’m Still Standing, but the truth of the realisation is no less heartfelt and it’s welcome that they’ve avoided any sort of Elton As Saviour narrative.

This may not have every beat of John’s life, but by God, it’s got the rhythm and the blues of it and, more importantly it's not scared to wear its heart along with its rhinestones on its sleeve.

Reviewed on: 24 May 2019
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A musical fantasy reimagining of Elton John's early success, addiction and rehab.
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Director: Dexter Fletcher

Writer: Lee Hall

Starring: Taron Egerton, Bryce Dallas Howard, Richard Madden, Stephen Graham, Jamie Bell

Year: 2019

Runtime: 2019 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, US


Cannes 2019

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