It is possible that my having seen Elton John ten times in concert has made me more critical of this movie. And having seen him, I went into the cinema curious; would the music make the story or the music be a by-product of the story. I was hoping the latter but got the former and that created problems. An autobiography of this scale has to be both honest - for the most part, it is, diving right into Elton’s dark side from the beginning - and live up to understanding the subject. I can’t say for certain it succeeded on this last point, because while this movie has brilliance to it, there are glaring misses.
Starting on a positive note, Taron Egerton was great casting. He has Elton’s personality down. His singing a little short of the mark at times but close enough to not matter. Elton (and Bernie’s) music is weaved into every fabric of this movie from the opening score on. It is the music that holds this movie together but really, would you expect less?
The movie is billed as part rock-n-roll fantasy, part musical. It lives up to the billing. There are really interesting musical arrangements of Elton’s well-known hits and dance numbers one would not have expected. Part rock and part Broadway. The costumes were another plus. Straight out of Elton’s wardrobe, though I thought there was too much emphasis on the weird stuff he wore during shows. For some reason, the script focused a lot of energy on this point.
The script centered around the lousy home life of Elton and how it haunted him the rest of his life. It also dealt extremely openly with his homosexuality and drug abuse. A large portion of the plot is on a lover who betrayed him both in the bedroom and in business. There is also frank discussion of Elton and Bernie’s working relationship, though at points the timeline on this is a little blurry.
This brings me to the music. Songs are taken out of timeline. The fantasy part of the story kicking in. But what irked me more than anything I believe, was the simple fact we never saw or gained a sense of Elton’s stage prowess. He typically plays 3-4 hours a show. And we never see how some of his great work came about. In fact, there are omissions that I am baffled by.
Let me start with Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy, probably the most autobiographical album Elton and Bernie did. And as any fan will tell you, the sound and make-up of that album stands alone in the Elton catalog. It is different from anything else they did. And at the time, it was the fastest selling album ever in rock history. Yet, I don’t think they mentioned it once or played a single note from it.
There are moments in Elton’s life that should’ve been mentioned in the script but got not a peep:
*His friendship with John Lennon. Fans know that Lennon’s last live performance was with Elton. The two had a good friendship and were at times, finding trouble together. Other personalities, like Princess Di or Billie Jean King were never mentioned either. The story solely was about him and his lover and his parents.
*Elton bringing rock to the Soviet Union. Elton also did a series of two man shows - where he and one of his band played every single instrument on stage - that is unmatched. Not mentioned. In fact, his interactions with his band are never dealt with. A choice that I think that amounts to cheating the audience.
*A couple of his comeback efforts like Blue Moves or the Live In Australia special that topped the charts. To his credit, he did deal with his failure of Victim Of Love that threatened to end his career.
*Ryan White or the AIDS epidemic. While the film breaks ground in showing gay sex, you would think that this would be a chance to show a different take on the AIDS epidemic and all his efforts with Ryan White, who he publicly credits with helping him kick his drug habit. Never dealt with.
True you can’t squeeze everything into two hours and we learn a lot, especially about his home life and the talent he had as a kid. But there was room to expand and bring in more, much more, and especially give us an insight into the making of the music.
This is still an entertaining film. I would recommend it, giving it 4 of 5 on my rating scale. But I just think there was an opportunity here to do so much more and make this not a good film, but a GREAT film. In a lot of ways, they played it too safe.
I’ll end with my top five Elton Albums:
Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Madman Across The Water