A film review by Craig J. Koban June 15, 2019

ROCKETMAN jjj

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 inevitable.   

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.

Two things, 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). 

2.  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 formulaic storytelling. 

 

 

ROCKETMAN is 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. 

Describing the 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 gritty detail. 

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. 

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