‘Rocketman’ Review: Still Standing After All This Time
I enjoyed Rocketman, the new film based on the life of Elton John. But biopics of rock musicians all tend to go the same way: there’s the bumpy home life, the big breakout moment, the excessive drugs and alcohol abuse, and then the subject either dies or is redeemed and makes peace with themselves. Those are the only two options.
We saw it recently with Freddie Mercury and Queen in Bohemian Rhapsody, an even with Motley Crue in Netflix’s The Dirt. Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman also follows this pattern, but there’s one thing that separates this film from the others mentions: Rocketman is a musical, complete with huge dance numbers in public places and rearranged songs meant for ensembles.
The story of Elton John has to be big, flamboyant, and fantastic, like the subject. And Rocketman is all those things. Taron Egerton proves once again that he’s at the top of his acting game here. He first wowed us as Eggsy in the Kingsman films, and then stole the show as Eddie Edwards in Eddie the Eagle. In Rocketman, he dissolves into the role of Elton, blurring the line between actor and subject.
He even does his own singing and very quickly my brain resolved that the words coming out of his mouth didn’t sound like Elton, and it didn’t even matter.
Rocketman opens with Elton (Egerton) seeking help in a addiction meeting. This serves as the storytelling device for Lee Hall’s script that takes the audience back to young Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley), a boy with an apathetic mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and an unloving father (Steven Mackintosh). Reg is a musical prodigy, as we discover early on, and by the time he hits his tween years (now played by Kit Connor), Reg is proving to be more than his upbringing.
A few big musical numbers, all set the Elton John songs, brings the characters to his early 20s and with Egerton in the driver’s seat, we see the fateful meeting between Reg and Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), a meeting that would change rock music forever. With a new name and persona, Reg becomes Elton Hercules John, and Bernie supplies the words that will make them both famous. This writing team is poised for stardom, and by the time they get to Elton John’s first show at L.A.’s Troubadour, the world is ready to accept them.
Rocketman doesn’t shy away from Elton’s sexual orientation, nor does it overdo it. His torrid, sometime brutal love affair with his manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), is featured, warts and all. As is the rampant drug and alcohol abuse that viewers expect from a musical biopic. Director Dexter Fletcher is still able to make the story interesting by incorporating the right Elton John song to fit the drama on the screen. The numbers aren’t chosen in any historical context, nor do the lyrics entirely match.
When Elton John hits a particular time of self doubt during the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” number, we know the character’s not really going back to his plough. And the audience understands this. But it doesn’t diminish the dramatic power of the rearranged composition. The music and songs are used as a tool, much like the actors, and Fletcher uses them all to build a solid rocket ship to take us all into the stars.
The compositions of these classic songs have been rearranged so that they feel fresh and new, and the audience can’t help but tap their toes, as Elton John and Bernie Taupin were a team made in the heavens. Their partnership plays a central role in the film, and I came out knowing more about them both, which is a good thing.
Rocketman is bound by the cliches that it must follow as a music biopic, but it still finds ways to break free using the musical numbers, and through the power of Egerton’s performance as Elton. It’s late May, and we already have a front runner for best actor come awards season, even if the rest of the film is forgotten by then. But I’m not sure I will ever forget this film, for good or bad, and I know that I have a better understanding of who Elton John was and how he got to this point in present life. And that’s the mission of any biopic. I just didn’t think I’d have this much fun learning.
Rocketman is rated R and is in theaters now. Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
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