The story of Reginald Dwight (Taron Egerton), later to become the famous singer-songwriter Elton John, largely featuring moments from the first half of his life and career. For all of his musical success, Elton is a lonely man longing for love and companionship as a gay man.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” may have been lauded with awards, but it was for me one of the worst films of its year. Now comes this 2019 musical biopic from director Dexter Fletcher (Spike from “Press Gang”. I’m sorry, but that’s what I mostly know him from. Loved that show!), who took over the reins of “Bohemian Rhapsody” once Bryan Singer vacated the position. Since Fletcher was at the helm the entire time of this one, he gets the blame almost exclusively to himself here. A dreadfully wrong-headed film that is far more musical than biopic, it’s only a slight hair above “Bohemian Rhapsody” in my view.
Scripted by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”, the dreadful “War Horse” and largely mocked film version of “Cats”), I hear Elton John himself was the force behind getting the film made. That his vision of his own life story is essentially a re-run of “Billy Elliot: The Musical” (with Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin here, no less) tells me that he perhaps was not the best judge for how to tell his own damn story. If Elton was more concerned with toe-tapping musical interludes than presenting an accurate and chronological telling of his life story, then he should’ve taken a leaf out of “Mamma Mia!” and just made a fictional film set to his songs. I would’ve enjoyed that, most likely. However, that’s not what we get here. We get a mixture of both, and while it will probably find an audience, I’m very much not it. You’ll either go with it, or you’ll be like me and complain that Elton is writing/performing songs out of chronological order and that there’s too much fantastical 1950s movie musical sequence nonsense taking you out of the reality of Elton’s life story. I just didn’t like how the film was trying to tell the Elton John story, but allowing a child Elton John to perform ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’, which wasn’t even one of his early songs. When Elton and Bernie go to their first record exec meeting, Elton busts out ‘Sad Songs (Say So Much)’, which is from the fucking 1980s. What the hell am I supposed to do? Shut off the part of my brain that knows things and just let it all wash over me passively? Nope. I couldn’t go with it, and I really wanted to, despite my loathing in general of musicals.
The film doesn’t even try to get the facts right in other areas either. The scene where the former Reggie Dwight comes up with his stage name? It’s untrue. Elton didn’t get his name from John Lennon. I can almost understand toning down the Elton John Story, but why make shit up when he’s lived such a fascinating, colourful life? And don’t even get me started on the idiotic, ill-advised wraparound device of Elton telling his story from rehab (wearing one of his outrageous stage costumes no less. Thankfully it’s not the Donald Duck suit, but it’s still pretty absurd). It culminates in an absolutely disastrous fantasy finale where several of the rather unsympathetically portrayed characters from his life turn up at rehab to berate him like some kind of nasty Greek chorus. No, this one’s not for me. That’s a shame, because while I generally detest movie musicals, I love a lot of Elton’s songs. I grew up with ‘I’m Still Standing’ and ‘Sad Songs (Say So Much)’ and especially love ‘Daniel’ and the underrated ‘The Last Song’ among many, many others from his enduring career. His real-life told accurately and chronologically could’ve provided the basis for a most enjoyable and interesting biopic (Especially if, unlike this one, it didn’t focus so much on the most clichéd parts of his life – his unhappy childhood and later drug addiction). This is not that movie. At all.
There is one flight of musical fancy that does actually work: Elton singing ‘Crocodile Rock’ (a frivolous but utterly joyous song) at the Troubadour and everyone starts to float on air. It’s magical in a film that comes off like a botched trick with all the seams showing. For the most part the songs aren’t even appropriately chosen on an emotional level either, aside from two: ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ sung by Elton and short-term wife Renata at a turbulent time in Elton’s life. That one works (despite seemingly taking place five years or so too early), though it’s pretty much all we get to see of Renata because it’s on to the next unhappy thing in this ‘all the unhappy bits, none of the fun’ randomly arranged collage of the Elton John story. The second bit of emotional truth via music comes when the character of Bernie Taupin actually sings ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. I didn’t mind that because there was an emotional truth at that point in the story, and Taupin wrote the damn lyrics himself. It’s a great, great piece of lyricism I might add. Unfortunately, it isn’t sung in the usual manner, pretty much lessening the impact for me. It perks up a bit when Egerton’s Elton John picks up the reins a little later, but he also gets the more up-tempo part of the song. The best musical moment in the film is probably a dynamic version of ‘Pinball Wizard’, which is a Who cover anyway (Elton played the character of ‘Pinball Wizard’ in the movie musical version of “Tommy”, but you wouldn’t know that here because we get zero context). Although I absolutely hate the finale of the film, I do like ‘I’m Still Standing’ being chosen for that part of the film. It’s the right song to end this particular story on (despite being written years before he went to rehab in real-life), whatever I might think of the film overall. They even re-create the clip. It’s one of my all-time favourite Elton John songs.
Hand-picked by Elton himself, Taron Egerton proves himself hopelessly miscast in the lead role. Although he eventually does do quite well vocally as the film progresses (‘Tiny Dancer’, for instance), his initial foray into song here is a dreadful match for Elton. Acting-wise he’s simply miscast. He plays Elton too gruff and Cockney gangster-like, and looks nothing like him. I know Elton’s hardly the most camp gay man in the world, but he’s a bit softer than the guy in this movie and the gap tooth ain’t cutting it, Taron. So obviously I struggled to latch on to anything here. The singing is hit-and-miss, the songs and storytelling are non-chronological and fantastical, and the casting is largely off. I do think the filmmakers (and Egerton) do a pretty fair job of portraying Elton’s longing for love and companionship. The scene where the now famous Elton goes home and sees his rigid old dad, who is only interested in his son as a local celebrity rather than recognising him as his son, is also quite decent. Jamie Bell looks even less like Bernie Taupin than Egerton looks like John, but as he’s by far the less famous of the two characters, it’s less of a problem. The best performance in the film oddly enough comes from a surprisingly cast Tate Donovan in a rather flamboyant performance I never thought the rather lightweight actor to be capable of. He’s fun to have around in a film I didn’t find particularly fun at all. This is the second film after “Bohemian Rhapsody” to feature current Aussie resident John Reid, who here was Elton’s former manager and lover. It’s interesting that in the earlier film he was played by “Game of Thrones” scene-stealer Aidan Gillen, whereas here he’s played by Robb Stark himself, Richard Madden. Neither actor looks much like the wee Clive James-ish looking Reid (Egerton, as Elton John, looks more like Reid!), but unlike poor Gillen, Madden doesn’t have to worry about an over-eager editor chopping his performance to shreds. He also gets the voice/accent fairly right, too. Whether this far more negative portrayal of Reid is correct or not, I cannot say. I will say, whilst we’re comparing this to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, that the film is thankfully far less shy about Elton’s sexuality than “Bohemian Rhapsody” was about Freddie Mercury’s. On the downside, it’s still a sanitised view of Elton John as victim. We don’t even get one single hint of his well-known bitchiness and Diva antics. Sure, they were mostly from more recent periods in his life, but since when has this film cared about being in chronological order?
Some will disagree, but for me a wrong-headed mixture of unconvincing real-life story and non-chronological musical-fantasy. I never got into it, and I think Taron Egerton is particularly miscast in the lead. He can act, as can Jamie Bell, but Egerton in no way convinces as Elton John beyond an OK singing imitation at best (Apparently Elton told him not to try to imitate him). Make no mistake, I am not criticising this film for not being what I wanted it to be. I’m criticising it for being bad at what it’s trying to be when it could’ve been so much better if done in more traditional fashion. A total mess, but if all you care about is having a sing-along to some great songs while the film washes over you, you might get some use out of this.