2019, PG, 121 mins.
Taron Egerton as Elton John / Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin / Richard Madden as John Reid / Bryce Dallas Howard as Sheila Eileen / Gemma Jones as Ivy / Steven MacKintosh as Stanley / Charlie Rowe as Ray Williams / Stephen Graham as Dick James / Tate Donovan as Doug Weston
Directed by Dexter Fletcher / Written by Lee Hall
ROCKETMAN is a
new music biography about select sections of the life and times of Elton
John, the iconic English singer, songwriter, pianist, and composer that
has sold over a quarter of a billion records worldwide, making him one of
the best selling artists in history.
It comes coasting in on the coattails, so to speak, of last year's
Oscar nominated BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY,
and comparisons between the these two - albeit very different - films is
Both films are about gay musicians (in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY's case, Freddie Mercury) that created content during the same relative time periods and achieved meteoric success. Both men conceived and executed some of the catchiest songs ever. Both men battled addictions and ended up coming to grips with their closest homosexuality. Both films were essentially directed by the same man in Dexter Fletcher, who became a pinch hitter for the infamously fired Bryan Singer on BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. And both films, it could be argued, wallow in a lot of the overused clichés and conventions of the genre.
though, help elevate ROCKETMAN well above being yet another entry on a long list
of troupe laden musical biopics:
1. Star Taron
Egerton is absolutely sensational as Elton John and is an equally
phenomenal vocal talent. He's eerily and completely convincing throughout this film
singing the legendary singer's most cherished songs (unlike recent Oscar
winner Raimi Malek's performance as Mercury, Egerton does all his own
singing here - more on that in a bit).
The movie is inventively directed and staged as a whimsical musical
fantasy that gives John's songs a whole new unique flavor as they're being
used to comment on various aspects of his life covered in the narrative. This aesthetic approach gives ROCKETMAN an infectiously
joyous energy that helps to greatly override the script's
shown essentially in bookended flashback form, opening in the mid-1980s
and establishes the star looking back on key aspects of his life leading up
until that point with his rehab clinic support group.
This unorthodox opening does a good job at throwing viewers off
balance as it shows John decked out in fantastical demon-like garb,
looking like he's ready to thrust himself on stage at his musical peak and
instead shows him bursting into his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
From there we witness his very humble beginnings as a young musical
prodigy in the UK (attending the Royal Academy of Music) to his
flourishing and developing on-stage personality.
We bare witness to his ever-growing fractured relationship with his
non-nurturing parents towards his fateful meeting and partnership with songwriter Bernie Taupin
(Jamie Bell), who ended up collaborating with John for decades.
Becoming a relative overnight sensation, John rises as a major star
throughout the 70s and 80s, but incredible wealth and fame came at a
price, not only in terms of substance abuse issues, but also with a growing
emotional distance with his parents and coming to grips with
keeping his homosexuality a guarded secret in an industry at the time that
was not accepting of it.
overall story trajectory of ROCKETMAN doesn't really instill much
confidence that it deviates away from tried and overused genre
contrivances. And in many
respects, the film doesn't, seeing as it follows the obligatory blueprint
of chronicling the highs and lows of a coming from nothing nobody that
morphs into a rock star, only then to crash hard when the stresses of
fame and performing start taking damaging philological strangleholds.
This is hardly anything new and
has all been done before in so many past musical biopics.
Hell, ROCKETMAN is even replete with montages that depict John's
rapid rising up the billboard charts and all of the notoriety and
prestige that this involves, which, in turn, gives way to even more
montages showing gluttonous shopping sprees, mansion buying, lavish
parties, and so forth. Nothing
about ROCKETMAN's sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll scripting really treads
new ground at all.
But, hot damn,
Fletcher's wonderfully stylish approach to this material is what makes
ROCKETMAN - no pun intended - really sing.
The creative approach here has as much reckless abandon and snazzy
flair as John does himself on stage performing, and Fletcher and writer
Lee Hall come up with some truly innovative ways to let John and those
around him in the film break out into song and dance - all belting out
John's renowned lyrics - that has the effect of breaking down the singer's
life into a series of remarkably endearing and wildly entertaining jukebox
fantasy musical vignettes. Now,
using famous music to typify the mood and mindsets of the characters
singing them is hardly anything new cinematically, but ROCKETMAN is
decidedly different in the sense that it's taking music so deeply
entrenched in the pop culture milieu and somehow makes them all feel
revitalizing and fresh to the ear. Whether
it be bombastic showstoppers like "Crocodile Rock" or more
introspective and intimately rendered moments using "Your Song"
or "Goodbye, Yellowbrick Road," the inclusion of John's work here is
not just auditory filler on autopilot: It helps cement the tone and mood
of various scenes in the film and immerses us within the headspaces
of not only John at various stages of his life, but also that of those
around him that shaped who he became, for better or worse.
Best of all,
ROCKETMAN also benefits from an fairly hard R-rating, something that the
somewhat sanitized and sentimentalized BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY lacked with its
neutered PG-13 rating. Hall's screenplay is not afraid to go to some dark and dreary
places with John's history, and it's disheartening, to say the least,
seeing him begin as a shy and lonely English boy that had two parents that
barely supported his musical gifts that later becomes a
massive industry success and nearly throws it all away because of his
booze and pill popping dependency issues.
We see many of his deeply harmful drug and alcoholic binge streaks,
which negatively manifested in John slowly shunning away the people in his
tight inner circle that were positively encouraging his abilities since
the beginning. ROCKETMAN
could have easily glossed over the sordid details of its subject's life
and distractingly sugarcoated them, but instead embraces the inherent
darkness of Johns life, which included an awful lot of public and personal
humiliations alongside a suicide attempt.
Even though ROCKETMAN's style frequently elevates it into realms of
pure staged make-believe, the emotional core of the lowest periods of
John's existence are never watered down and are shown in warts and all
Egerton is the
performance glue that holds everything here so successfully together.
The KINGSMAN star is one that I've always admired in small dosages, but little
on his resume will prepare you the euphoric highs he attains in his tour
de force portrayal of John here. Now,
Egerton make not be a physical dead ringer for the musician, but he so
thoroughly inhabits John's soul through so many various stages (from
jubilant early success through late staged career self-implosion) that you
really have to admire his tremendous dedication and commitment to the
part. And, yes, Egerton does
all of his very own singing, as mentioned, throughout the film, and it's
an astonishing achievement in vocal mimicry.
He not only conveys the pop star's outlandish on stage physicality,
but also sings his everlastingly revered catalogue of songs with absolute
conviction and authenticity. But
Egerton is also a revelation in the quieter scenes that have to tap into
John's growing self-loathing insecurities and anxieties, which helps gives
his work such a full bodied vitality.
This is the performance of the young actor's career and will most
definitely become Oscar nominated.
I only wished that ROCKETMAN soared as high in other areas. The film feels oddly truncated at times (despite having a two hour runtime), and - as is the case with many biopics - feels like it's rushing through and glossing over key aspects of John's life. The film also features a few too many underwritten characters, like John's mother (Bryce Dallas Howard's performance is also stiff, mannered, and distracting) and that of his on-again, off-again secret lover/manager (impeccably well played by Richard Madden, despite his character not being given much development on the page). Still, there's so much to bloody admire in this musical biopic, like a sizzling and inordinately charismatic performance by Egerton and those stupendously innovative musical fantasy sequences done with so much audacious panache. ROCKETMAN may adhere too closely to genre blueprints for its own good at times, but it nevertheless finds novel ways to cement itself well apart from a crowded pact and becomes wholly unique on its own...kind of like what John did in his career.