SHOULD I SEE IT?
If you don’t know him by now, the name is Taron Egerton. And he gives a dynamic, dazzling tour-de-force performance as Elton John.
Rocketman is a jukebox musical that features elaborate set pieces and cast-driven song interpretations which will make you immediately want to revisit the Elton John songbook.
This is a rousing, crowd-friendly anthem of a movie, not afraid to go places other recent biopics ran away from and/or tried to hide.
Even with inspired musical numbers, Rocketman does have several of the typical rock-star-living-to-excess cliches we have seen in countless other movies, countless other times.
I mean I suppose if you’re not a fan of Elton John’s music, this will have minimal interest to you. Also: How are you not a fan of Elton John?
Let’s just get this out of the way from the beginning.
Bohemian Rhapsody was absolutely not my jam. I am on record in voicing my absolutely dismay, frustration, and anger over the way Queen held the project hostage for years, muted and whitewashed Freddie Mercury’s life to fit a crowd-pleasing narrative, and then became heroes for doing so. Rami Malek did deliver an astonishing performance as Mercury, winning him an Academy Award in February 2019, and the film had audiences singing, downloading, and binging the Queen catalog around-the-world.
So imagine my trepidation with Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher, who finished Bohemian Rhapsody when original director Bryan Singer, after allegations of years of misconduct with underage boys and a lack of professionalism with actors and crew, was let go with just three weeks left in the shoot.
To go back and watch Bohemian Rhapsody, I would imagine Fletcher’s work highlights the moments I appreciate most in that film. With Rocketman, Fletcher has crafted a flamboyant, unafraid, honest, and constantly moving look at the legendary Elton John in his formative years. Spanning his youth, a rise to stardom in 1970, and an ultimate descent into numerous addictions of all types and kinds, we get a full, colorful, and dazzling look at Sir Elton’s wild, storied life.
Beginning with a young Reginald Dwight at the age of 5 (Matthew Illesley), c. 1952, we see a self-obsessed mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), an often-absent, spurning military father (Steven Mackintosh), and loving grandmother (Gemma Jones) providing the crux of the relationships which define his adolescence. With an ability to listen by ear and teach himself the basics of playing the piano, his grandmother accompanies him to lessons at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music, around the age of 11.
In his teenage years, Reg (Kit Connor) becomes more emboldened, attempting to find his voice with a mother who barely pays attention to him and a father who cannot even be bothered to give him a hug after being away for weeks at a time.
Styled as a jukebox musical, Rocketman uses the John catalog in a non-linear way. For example, his 2001 ballad “I Want Love” is performed by the cast in a scene set in the early 1960s. In fact, cast members break into song frequently, as the lyrics from nearly two dozen Elton John songs guide us through Lee Hall’s solid, if not occasionally over-stuffed screenplay.
Honestly, it becomes difficult to not imagine Rocketman on Broadway sometime in the future. Fletcher’s blueprint on how to stage the show is essentially laid bare before us. And, in this instance, this approach makes for a surprising and rather fascinating cinematic experience.
Hall’s screenplay is, by design, a tried-and-true celebrity biopic, using anecdotes and highlights from key periods of John’s life to inform and propel us ahead. And yet there is an honesty and authenticity found here that is refreshing.
Largely this comes from the breathtaking performance of Taron Egerton, delivering a career-defining turn. He careens wildly through the film with a vulnerability, fearlessness, and genuineness that captures the heart and soul of Elton John. Opting to perform all of his own vocals, Egerton is a revelation and offers depths and layers to his acting abilities we have not seen previously in, for example, the Kingsman films, his highest-profile work to date.
Some of the best moments come in scenes involving John meeting and collaborating with the man who has become his songwriting partner for more than 50 years, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). If anything, Rocketman could use a little more attention of the collaborative process the two employ. Taupin, as lyricist, and John as the music and melody man, creates a unique musical yin-and-yang if there ever was one.
Sadly, Taupin becomes little more than another peripheral character. His influence on what we are hearing and seeing is profound and involving Taupin in the film more would have only enhanced the proceedings more, from an emotional level.
Elements of this story we have seen before. The popping of pills. Excessive drinking. The entitled, privileged, spoiled rock star extravagance that leads to depression, paranoia, and indulging in all kinds of vices that derail a career. Former lover and business manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), emerges as something of a villain, but he stays in the fold, as John’s loyalty and fear of change fail to allow him to break up the inner circle around him.
John’s husband, David Furness, co-produced the film, and Elton serves as an Executive Producer. This is important as it becomes apparent that Rocketman wants to be fair and representative of the truth.
Unlike Queen rewriting their history egregiously and banking on audiences not caring (Ed. Note: They were right. You clearly didn’t), John seemingly has nothing to hide.
When Egerton is digitally inserted into the campy music video for 1983’s “I’m Still Standing,” it serves as a right and proper conclusion to the story of a rock star who has overcome his own struggles, coming out the other side looking like a true survivor and feeling almost like a little kid all over again.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Gemma Jones, Steven Mackintosh, Tom Bennett, Kit Connor, Matthew Illesley, Charlie Rowe, Tate Donovan, Celinde Schoenmaker, Ophelia Lovibond.
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Written by: Lee Hall
Release Date: May 31, 2019