Synopsis: The story of Elton John’s life, from his years as a prodigy at the Royal Academy of Music through his influential and enduring musical partnership with Bernie Taupin.
Stars: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Running Length: 121 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Fair is fair and I have to say right off the bat I was really rooting for Rocketman leading up to its release date. It’s not just because I’m a fan of Elton John or star Taron Egerton or that I was craving something with a different kind of movie magic than we’ve had so far in a strong 2019. Deep down, I wanted it to be better than Bohemian Rhapsody. There. I said it. I wanted it to best the 2018 biopic that was kinda about Freddie Mercury and kinda about Queen but ultimately not really about either because it couldn’t be fully honest about anything. That it went on to make so much money wasn’t a huge surprise considering the lasting impacting of Queen but it’s staying power in the cultural conversation was truly something to stand in awe of. I still haven’t fully come to terms that Rami Malek walked away with a Best Actor Oscar for his hammy, bug-eyed portrayal of Mercury. It’s a performance that almost instantly aged poorly and after seeing how right Egerton gets it as Elton John I think you’ll agree.
So yes…this was one I wanted to like but was more than ready to pounce on if it went down the same rose-colored glasses wearing path tread by Malek and company last year. Thankfully, every tear that wasn’t shed and thrill I didn’t feel in Bohemian Rhapsody were felt doubly in Rocketman. Here’s the right approach to find your way to the heart of a biopic: take a life story and tailor the film to the colorful character at its center. A film biography of Elton John would never have fit within your standard “and then he became a star” formulaic movie and screenwriter Lee Hall wisely knows that. Working with director Dexter Fletcher (who, in an weird twist of fate, took over directing duties for the last three weeks of Bohemian Rhapsody), Hall tells of John’s genesis in a sometimes surreal, often fantastical, always musical fashion and it’s a yellow brick winner.
Growing up in affluent Middlesex, Reginald Kenneth Dwight showed a knack for playing the piano just by ear at an early age. Though clearly a prodigy, he found little support from a selfish mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, Pete’s Dragon) and emotionally cold father (Steven Mackintosh, Kick-Ass 2) until his grandmother (Gemma Jones, Bridget Jones’s Baby) offered to take him to lessons with the Royal Academy of Music. An awkward adolescence led to his early adulthood as a pianist for visiting soul and R&B acts. Answering an ad for songwriters, the newly renamed Elton John came to Liberty Records, a fortuitous job inquiry as this is where he’d be paired with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) who would become his collaborator for the next fifty years (and counting!).
With hit songs garnering acclaim in the UK and sending them on a tour to America and the famed Troubadour nightclub, Elton and Bernie experienced celebrity at a time of extreme excess. Any kind of fantasy you want is yours. Any drug you desire is within your reach. No dream is too small if you have the money to pay for it. The more cash they bring in and the higher Elton’s star rises, the greater the divide between the close friends becomes…driven further apart by John’s substance abuse and his tortured relationship with his business (and romantic) partner John Reid (Richard Madden, Cinderella).
This true story of the meteoric rise of Elton’s early career, troubled mid-life, and eventual redemption is told using the soundtrack of the music he created with Taupin. It’s not wall-to-wall music and at 121 minutes it’s perhaps ten minutes shorter than it had to be but Fletcher takes that trim running length to keep things moving at high velocity like it’s central character. The songs are used creatively and not always in the order they were written and it’s nice to hear nearly all the main actors get the chance to use their voices at some point. While it’s not a comprehensive documentation of the Elton/Bernie catalog, the film finds clever ways of getting brief bits of songs in at various points throughout. Keep your ears open…especially for instrumental tracks.
The bulk of the singing and almost the entirety of the movie, rests on Egerton’s capable shoulders and he more than stands up to the challenge. Looking back at the wild looks Elton has worn onstage over the years gives you one part of the puzzle that is the singer and it’s up to Egerton to show us the side we haven’t had the opportunity to see yet. Thankfully, Elton appears to have given the filmmakers carte blanche to include what they wanted. While the film doesn’t shy away from his dependence on drugs, alcohol, and other vices it doesn’t portray him as an unwilling participant either. This is no pity party for a man who took a very active role in his drug abuse.
Egerton commits 150% to the role and anything less would have been phoning it in. He takes every costume piece and accessory to the max and he dances and sings like a dream. By the actor finding his groove with such verve, it allows us to buy what Egerton is selling…like when Elton describes himself as fat. Though they try to bulk him up by putting him in any number of wide corduroy jackets and neckerchiefs, there’s no way Egerton has extra poundage to emulate the roly poly musician when he was a youth. He does better in Elton’s later years when he’s losing his hair and the ravages of drugs and alcohol are beginning to take their toll.
Supporting Egerton nicely are Bell as talented lyricist Taupin. It’s always strange (or, a little bit funny?) to see Bell so grown-up all these years after Billy Elliot and I’m surprised we didn’t see him dancing at some point in the movie. Madden and Egerton take on ‘Honkey Cat’ for a laugh and while Madden won’t be recording a CD anytime soon he acquits himself nicely. Howard and Mackintosh have difficult roles as the enduring villains of the film but they don’t cut their characters any slack, making the final moments of the film that much more impactful. For a full on camp performance, look no further than Tate Donovan (Argo) as outlandish Troubadour owner Doug Weston…I like Donovan but boy did I wince every time he nearly flew away onscreen. I also thought a brief appearance by Dutch stage star Celinde Schoenmaker as Elton’s wife (!) was interesting and wanted more time with Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon, Mary Poppins Returns)…but who doesn’t?
Fletcher has a nice eye for keeping things visually interesting and not just in the costume department. Small scenes give way to large choreographed numbers that burst with energy and a few of these key moments create goosebump shivers up your spine. A transition from young Elton to Egerton’s Elton in the middle of ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ comes at the same moment when highly physical dancing is kicked up a notch. Then there’s the quiet scene on an ordinary day when Bernie gives Elton the lyrics to ‘Your Song’ and the entire house stops what they’re doing to listen to Elton find his way through the notes to the melody that is so instantly familiar – it’s truly a magic moment.
What Hall and Fletcher miss on are opportunities to go a little deeper with the material or finish their thoughts in scenes that are building to an emotional climax. On more than one occasion I felt a scene was heading toward a resolution only to have it interrupted by a musical number. I know you can only get so much of a life into a two hour movie and you’re never going to get the whole story but key characters get touched on so little you wonder why they were included at all. Elton’s brief marriage of convenience is one example. I know why it’s there but it’s not given any true emotional weight, nor is there some finality with a few of the characters that deserve some rounding of the rough edges we’re left with.
Yet even with these examples of the movie skimming the surface instead of taking a deep dive, it has great emotional resonance. Elton’s sexuality is spoken about with casual frankness…as are opinions of those who don’t accept him for who is. I applaud everyone involved (including the studio) for keeping in the moments that show two men together and don’t treat it as lascivious or wrong or something for anyone to be ashamed of. Even if it makes the film overall more of a tough sell to some audiences, it’s dealing in honesty first and that’s commendable. I wasn’t expecting the movie to choke me up as much as it did but on several occasions I was greatly moved by what was happening onscreen.
I was lucky enough to see Elton John in concert earlier this year on his final tour and it dovetailed nicely into seeing this biopic. Though his range is smaller than it used to be and he rarely came out from behind his piano, he held a sold out crowd completely captive for two and a half hours based almost solely on the strength of his music. That is the true sign of an artist. I’d have loved to see Rocketman arrive in theaters a year earlier because then Bohemian Rhapsody would have arrived in its shadow and been held under some scrutiny for the facts it fudges and it’s almost pathological need to please instead of tell the truth. This music-filled life-story of Elton John isn’t afraid to be a warts-and-all look into his world and still have the audience on his side when the credits roll.