Dan's Review: "Rocketman" a fitting fantasy musical and tribute to Elton John
May 30, 2019 11:49PM
By Dan Metcalf
Taron Egerton in Rocketman - © 2019 Paramount.
Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content.
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Jason Pennycooke, Charlie Rowe, Gemma Jones, Kit Connor, Kamil Lemieszewski, Steven Mackintosh, Jimmy Vee, Rachel Muldoon, Celinde Schoenmaker, Sharon D. Clarke, Tate Donovan.
Written by Lee Hall.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher.
Two recent films may go down in cinematic history with the distinction of defining what musical biopics can or perhaps should be. The first is last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, the enjoyable, yet historically-challenged version of Freddie Mercury’s life and death. The other will be Rocketman, the story of Elton John’s rise to fame and fall from grace, out in theaters this weekend. While both films were directed (in part) by the same man (Dexter Fletcher, who took over Bohemian Rhapsody cleanup duties from Bryan Singer after allegations of sexual misconduct) they are distinctively unique experiences, that will evoke different reactions.
Taron Egerton stars as Elton John (whose real name is Reginald Dwight), a gifted musical prodigy with a mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) who shows little confidence and an emotionally vacant father (Steven Mackintosh). The boy “Reggie” (played by Matthew Illesley as a boy and Kit Connor as a teen) develops a love for rock and roll eventually plays piano gigs in London-area bars. As he reaches adulthood, Reggie seeks a record deal and is eventually paired with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), an undiscovered lyricist. Reggie adopts the stage name Elton John and eventually records his first album, setting him off on a meteoric rise to fame and fortune. Elton also accepts his homosexuality, leading to a relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden) who exploits Elton’s talents to great success – and excess. As Elton dives deeper into an extravagant lifestyle of drugs, booze, and sex, his psyche begins to unravel, which threatens his life, along with his relationships with friends and family. The greatest loss is his musical partnership with Bernie. As his gluttonous spiral continues, Elton is forced to come to terms with the origins of his psychological shortcomings and decide whether he wants to continue on a deadly path – or make appropriate changes. Since Elton is still with us and has continued to thrive professionally since he hit rock bottom in the early 1980s, it should be no spoiler to know the outcome of his epiphany.
It’s important to distinguish what Rocketman is not. It is not a linear biography, featuring a flimsy chronology or reenactments of Elton’s concerts and recording sessions (like Bohemian Rhapsody), even though there are some concert and recording studio settings. Rocketman is a fantasy musical in the truest sense, allowing main characters to tell Elton’s story through his music. Some scenes turn into large production numbers with synched choreography, elaborate sets, lighting, and special effects. Taron Egerton and the supporting cast sing into the camera using Taupin’s lyrics and Elton’s music to express nuanced elements of his challenges, such as his strained relationship with his parents and addictive behavior. This fantasy element also allows a lot more wiggle room with Elton’s musical and personal history, thereby avoiding any nitpicking over blatant misrepresentation of the facts.
The good news is, Rocketman works very well as a musical and might work as a top-notch stage production. Taron Egerton’s performance as Elton John is incredible, offering a great showcase for his own voice talent, while successfully imitating the superstar’s distinctive style. Elton and Bernie’s songs are altered into epic, orchestrated production numbers that inspire reflection and meaning, beyond simple, mindless pop tunes.
Ultimately, Rocketman is a proper celebration of Elton John’s music, while delivering some pertinent life lessons beyond the clichés of so many other rock and roll biopics. As I watched Rocketman, I couldn’t help but reflect and admire Elton’s contribution to the music of the past 50 years, placing him in the rare company of other iconic musicians like Elvis and The Beatles.