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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Rocketman, Review: Messed-up multi-millionaire music-maestro

Rocketman, Review: Messed-up multi-millionaire music-maestro

Film-makers now need to ask themselves whether it makes good sense to churn out bio-pics with regular frequency. Does the genre hold enough promise to deliver quality cinema? In recent times, many of them are guilty of picking eminent personalities from films and music, with common traits, like troubled childhood, inability to handle fame and fortune, sexual mania or alternative sexual behaviour, and drug abuse. The phenomenon is common to both Hollywood and Indian cinema, though in India, they have picked stars from running, cricket and boxing, to name three notable exceptions. Rocketman goes along the path more travelled, creates the same hurdles and surmounts them in standardised formats.

Rocketman is an epic musical fantasy about the incredible human story of Reginald Hercules Dwight, alias Sir Elton John’s, breakthrough years. The film follows the fantastical journey of transformation from shy piano prodigy Reggie into international superstar Elton John, set to the tunes of John’s most beloved songs. It tells the story of how a small-town (Middlesex, England) boy became one of the most iconic figures in pop culture. 'Rocketman' was a 1972 hit single, and John also owns two companies called Rocket Record Company (with Bernie Taupin), formed in 1973, and Rocket Pictures, which he founded in 1996. Rocket Pictures has co-produced Rocketman (certainly not rocket science, that), its first live action film.

Born to Sheila Eileen/Harris/Farebrother and Stanley Dwight in 1947, it is not completely clear where did the pseudonym ‘Elton John’ come from. When he introduced himself to sound recordist Renate Blauel as Reginald, she responded with, “That is my grandfather’s name.” Considering he ended-up marrying the woman later, he found that name decidedly embarrassing. So, Reginald had to go. At 15, he became part of a Rhythm and Blues (his first great passion) band, Bluesology. Reginald was a fan of fellow singer Long John Baldry, who asked Bluesology to be his back-up band, and authoritative sources say that the John part was a tribute to Baldry. In the film, when asked his surname, he turns towards a picture of John Lennon, and… And Elton? That was a tribute to another member of their band, Bluesology, saxophonist Elton Dean, which he ‘stole’ and replicated. The Hercules part of the name came later and he decided upon it whilst watching the British TV series Steptoe & Son, where the name of the Steptoe's horse was Hercules. His name was legally changed to Elton Hercules John on 7 January 1972.

A lot is made in the film of the name and the trichotomy between Reginald Dwight, the prodigious boy with a troubled childhood (his grandmother, Ivy, loved him, though), Reginald Dwight, the man outside his musical vestments, and Elton John, the self-destructive gay singer-musician (piano genius)-songwriter, with a range of repertoire that would do any superstar proud. Reginald started playing the piano when he was four and was enrolled into the Royal Academy of Music at age 11, to practice on Saturdays. After Bluesology, Reggie started writing songs with Bernie Taupin, British songwriter, three years younger than him, a partnership that has already lasted 51 years, during which almost all of John’s songs came from poetic the imagination of Taupin. A lot of the film is devoted to this part of John’s life. Of equal importance is his association with John Reid, who grew-up in Scotland, his hot-headed Manager and sex partner, from 1971, to whom he lost his virginity, in San Francisco. Reid was also Manager of the band, Queen. Elton and Reid parted ways in 1998. While drugs and alcohol are nothing new in major Hollywood productions, Rocketman is the first big production to show male gay sex, almost up front.

An Elton John biopic had been in development for about twenty years, with the project going through various studios, and reports that it would be helmed by Michael Gracey. Actors tipped to play John included Tom Cruise, Tom Hardy, James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe and Justin Timberlake (John’s choice). In 2014, John took the project to Paramount Pictures, with Taron Egerton and Dexter Fletcher signing up in 2018. Now let us meet Lee Hall, who has retold the early life and the milestone incidents in the tumultuous career of one of the greatest talents of the last 55 years (John started playing the piano at the Pinner Company Hotel Bar in 1964).

Playwright Lee Hall was born in 1966. His acclaimed play, Spoonface Steinberg (1997), a monologue for a nine-year-old autistic girl dying of cancer, was first broadcast in 1997. He subsequently adapted the play for TV in 1998, and for the stage, in 2000. He was appointed Writer in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1999/2000.  He also wrote the screenplay to the film Billy Elliot (1999), directed by Stephen Daldry, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He adapted his own play, I Luv You Jimmy Spud (1997), as a feature film, starring Billy Connolly, in 2000.

Lee Hall co-wrote the screenplay for the film, Pride and Prejudice, in 2005, and adapted The Wind in the Willows for television, in 2006. In 2014, Hall wrote the script for Shakespeare in Love, adapted from the play of the same title. His 2015 adaptation of Alan Warner's novel The Sopranos is entitled Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour. Lee Hall spent many hours with John, hearing stories and anecdotes (could it be otherwise)? Impeccable credentials, nevertheless.

Director Dexter Fletcher is a celebrity too, having recently given finishing touches to Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic based on Freddie Mercury, the gay singer of the group Queen. (Now I realise why the trailer of Bohemian Rhapsody kept flashing across my mind several times during my viewing of Rocketman, though I have not seen the Bohemian Rhapsody film). Two life-stories in two years? That’s life! In 2015, Fletcher directed Taron Egerton in Eddie the Eagle, in which Egerton sang his own songs. Next, Egerton was singing a John number, ‘I am still standing’, in Sing (2016). John co-starred with Taron Egerton in Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017), and last year, Fletcher was giving directions to Egerton’s take on Elton John in Rocketman. Things must have been decidedly easy for all three when Egerton was cast as John. Steven Mackintosh, who plays Elton's father Stanley Dwight, and Fletcher, both acted in Guy Ritchie's 1998 crime comedy, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. So he had one key role assigned to a tried and trusted talent.

As writer and director, once you have chosen Elton John, or any other charismatic star’s life as a subject, you generally tend to answer the below questions with an obvious “yes”. When done with élan and aplomb, the execution of premises like Rocketman can sweep you off your feet as if you had turbo-prop engines tied to your soles, and you may remain in suspended animation, like John and his fans do, in one number, but you will never realise that the film is a prisoner of its own parameters.

  1. *It is a true story. Should we take liberties with it?
  2. *There’s male gay sex involved, and it is 2018 now. Should we be bold enough to show it?
  3. *Our hero takes a lot of psychotropic drugs, and alcohol in excess. Should we include scenes of drug trips and drinking binges?
  4. *His habits could have killed him. Should we show a near death experience?
  5. *He had major issues about money with his Manager and there were some ugly scenes. Including such portions might show both in poor light. Should we?
  6. *Elton John’s time-line is for all to check-out and relate to. Should we take liberal liberties with it?
  7. *His fame and recognition was based on certain songs and tours, the chronology of which is engraved in black and white. Yet, we feel that the songs should appear situationally, and not chronologically. Would that be okay?
  8. *Taron Egerton is a good singer and John told him to not to copy him too much and make his own version, so can we go with Egerton singing all 21 songs and one duet with John?
  9. *Whenever a vital question is asked of our hero about his past, he replies with the obvious, bland answer, which is always untrue. And then we show what really happened, which is always the opposite of what he said happened. This trope has been used in 1,000 films so far, so will it work for Rocketman?
  10. *John did go into rehab with Alcoholics Anonymous, where you have to share your experiences with fellow addicts, trying to get rid of their malady, but it was not quite the way Lee has written it, and neither does it sync into the time-span. It makes a very effective trigger, though, to start our film with, and an optimistic closing, to leave the audience with. How about going for it, making it a grand entry, wearing the most outlandish costume, swaggering, in diffused, slo mo?

In all cases, it is a definite yes, for a no would mean sticking to dull reality and restricting creative license.

End titles include the following update: Today, Elton John has been sober for nearly 30 years, remains friends and collaborators with Bernie Taupin, and he has found true love with David Furnish, and they are raising two sons together. (They do not tell whether the sons are surrogate or adopted).

Taron Egerton (award-winning debut: Kingsman-2014; also featured in sequel) as Elton John is superb in a host of ways. Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin is a perfect foil, putting-up with a crazy, child-man. Richard Madden as John Reid exudes the mix of professionalism and ruthlessness that keeps Talent Managers going. Bryce Dallas Howard as Sheila Eileen holds her own and Gemma Jones as Ivy is graceful, without being overtly patronising. Kit Connor as Older Reggie and Matthew Illesley young Reggie are brilliant. Celinde Schoenmaker as Renate Blauel has sharp features and soft sympathy for the man she ends up marrying and getting divorced from. Evan Walsh has a small role as Elton Dean, the man whose first name became among the most famous pseudonyms of all time. Steven Mackintosh as Stanley is so superciliously steely that one could call him Steely Stan.

Music by Matthew Margeson is the mainstay. Cinematography by George Richmond captures most moments in technical finesse. Film Editing by Chris Dickens could have been slicker, for the film wobbles a bit in the middle of its 121 minutes. Set Decoration by Alice Walker is stunning, while Julian Day must have had a field day with so many bizarre and alien-like costumes on Egerton.   

With so many assets, what are the tests that Rocketman is failing to clear with top marks? : Choosing a genre that restricts creativity, avoiding tropes and stereo-types, believing that a grander reworking of a grand life, with too much cinematic freedom, would win greater accolades. Well, it will certainly win something at the Oscars. When you have so many plus signs on your report card, you are bound to bag a couple of prizes.

I would be happier if writers and directors across the globe eschewed the beaten track, treated the celebrity biopic as effete and obsolete, and looked for common-man stories to impart fresh treatment and free-hand development to. Forrest Gump comes to mind right away. A fictitious man of low IQ and little money is a better bet than a messed-up multi-millionaire, who is still alive and still very much a legend. If you start looking for them, around you and in books, in theatre or in screenplays that have been gathering dust, you will find so many themes that will inspire a new language, a novel syntax, a fresh mise en scène and make film-buffs gape in awe.

Rocketman has a clear A certificate from the Indian Central Board of Film Certification, which means that nothing has been cut, though the film is, not unexpectedly, certified for viewing by Adults Only. Even then, one must say, that the CBFC has been very accommodating.

Rating: ***


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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