I suppose I should have known this was going to be a huge disappointment. Both Elton and his husband David Furnish were involved in the production, so it could never be truly objective. In truth I was never a real Eton John fan – something we discussed after seeing the film – as few of us were, although we recognised the song-writing talent and the good disco music. I’m not sure how much of the blame can be laid at director Dexter Fletcher’s door either, as he finished of the much-revered Bohemian Rhapsody after Brian Singer was sacked.
Elton John wanted a warts-and-all biopic of his early years. The film starts and ends in rehab, using the classic flashback technique to tell the story of Elton’s rise from an unhappy childhood in Pinner, with a vain and indifferent mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a cruel and distant father (the oh-so-familiar Steven Mackintosh) who never gave him a hug. Luckily he had Nan, a delightful cameo from Gemma Jones doing what she does best, oozing love and support for her geeky and ungainly grandson, who shows a gift for playing from memory.
After an overlong scene-setter on Elton’s childhood, his transformation from innocent pianist to talented singer/songwriter, via sleazy Soho management and his lifelong friendship with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), is like a fairy tale. The two innocents are suddenly thrust into Hollywood, doing sell-out shows at the legendary Troubadour Club and becoming acquainted with his future downfall in the shape of sex – with the ruthless producer John Reid (Richard Madden) – drugs and booze.
It’s the classic rags to riches rock’n’roll story of exploitation and unhappiness. The constant refrain is for Elton to ‘find the person he really is’ which just feeds on his insecurity born of being an unloved and unwanted child. Elton wanted the film to catalogue only the bad years, ending with the anthem I’m still standing. The 28 sober years and his happiness are a PS. It has, as we all know, a happy ending. The trauma of his early years are thus a revelation.
The problem is the decision to make this into a fantastical Hollywood musical along the lines of La La Land. I didn’t rate that movie highly either. There was something that really jarred and misfired with random characters bursting into (Elton) song and dance routines at various stages of the narrative. At no time did this feel like a feel-good movie, despite the heavy-handed attempt. Add a pretty dicey script and a huge dollop of introspection and it all ends up a cringe-worthy concoction. My companion actually walked out. And he’s a film director! The redeeming feature is Taron Egerton’s great impersonation of Elton. Hard to believe he sings every song himself, but he does. Not only is he a shoe-in physically but he also managed to learn many of Elton’s mannerisms and facial expressions. Good job. As was the young Elton, the utterly adorable Matthew Illesley who, in the rather fun photo comparison credits, is the double of the young Reg Dwight. All the acting is good, it’s just a shame that the concept behind the film is so flawed.