It’s hard not to compare “Rocketman” to the most recent music biopic of an acclaimed rock legend in last year’s Oscar-winning, mega-hit “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Not only because they cover similar ground and even share some of the same real-life characters, but because “Rocketman” director Dexter Fletcher stepped in midway through production of “Rhapsody” after the firing of original director, Bryan Signer, to help finish the film.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” took the traditional biopic route, but “Rocketman” however, is no ordinary music biopic. This is a full-fledged fantasy musical using Elton John’s classic songs as a through line to tell the story of Elton’s rise to fame, and his eventual descent into darkness. Characters will break out in song mid-sentence, years might span in one number; the whole shebang.
The framing of the film finds Elton in a rehab meeting, sporting his bright red and orange demon bird costume with wings and heart-shaped glasses, recounting his life up until that point. As the story progresses and Elton delves deeper into his story, his attire changes —going from bright and lavish costumes, eventually to a bathrobe and Puma jogging suit; giving visual aide to the deconstruction in his story.
We begin in Elton’s younger years as a boy; born Reginald Kenneth Dwight. We witness Elton’s first moments noticing his otherworldly gifts for music, his troubled upbringing with his parents and eventually meeting song-writer/lifelong collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) before his career takes off and ultimately becomes the legend we know him as today.
The relationship with Elton’s parents is explored with a surprising level of complexity. His father (Steven Mackintosh) is seen as a fairly cliche war-torn, emotionally-distant father in the 50’s we’ve seen in these types of films before — early on, young Elton utters the heart-breaking line “dad, when will you hug me?” — but has some subtle moments later on hinting at further depth.
Bryce Dallas Howard gives one of her best performances on Elton’s rejective mother. Howard not only sports a solid British accent, but adds considerable nuance to a character that in the hands of a different film, could’ve been a rote stereotype.
Given the enormous task of playing the iconic legend, Taron Egerton gives the performance of a lifetime. His performance isn’t an impression of the man, but rather an embodiment. Egerton loses himself in the role and digs deep into the vulnerability of Elton John. He nails the flamboyant persona we all know and love about Elton, but also brings great sorrow to the quieter moments. So much is said just through Egerton’s eyes, that we really feel like we’re often staring into his soul. It’s a remarkable turn that is perfect in every scene.
Richard Madden is electric as Elton’s former manager and lover, John Reid. Reid — previously played by Aidan Gillen in “Bohemian Rhapsody” — isn’t given a greater character arc or a fully dimensional role, but Madden makes a large impression and sometimes steals the scenes he shares with Egerton. Jamie Bell is also strong as Bernie Taupin. Bell shares a natural chemistry with Egerton and helps bring the legendary friendship of Bernie and Elton to a fitting cinematic representation.
Dexter Fletcher shows great confidence behind the camera. While there are tons of appropriately flashy sequences of spectacle that strike awe in both the heart and brain, Fletcher never loses his grasp of the narrative. With this still being a biopic spanning over a couple decades, there are some aspects that will inevitably get glossed over, but the storytelling never feels limp. Running at just a hair over 2 hours, “Rocketman” could definitely have been longer, but the pacing is so air tight and the energy never drags, there’s never a sense you’re missing out on anything important.
Fletcher and screenwriter, Lee Hall (“Billy Elliott”) are juggling a lot of moving pieces here, and its an accomplishment that “Rocketman” is as coherent as it is. However, it’s frustrating when Fletcher and Hall make the rare misstep because the rest of the film does it’s damnedest to steer clear of such cliches. There’s literally a scene towards the end of the film that comes straight out of “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”.
When “Rocketman” goes-for-broke — similar to Elton himself — the film is at its most compelling. Fletcher crafts such inventive, remarkable musical numbers that mix old-school razzmatazz and surreal, psychedelic fantasia. It’s the work of a gifted visual storyteller firing on all cylinders and regularly reminded me of old MGM musicals if mixed with Ken Russell (who actually directed the music videos for John’s “Cry To Heaven” and “Nikita” off the 1985 album, “Ice on Fire”).
The numbers involving Elton’s downfall feature some of the most simultaneously haunting and beautiful visuals I’ve seen in a musical since Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe”. Unlike similar work from another gifted visual storyteller, Baz Luhrmann, the visuals don’t come at the expense of the story. The musical numbers effectively tell the story of a man suffering from addiction and loneliness. The actual “Rocketman” number is a prime example of well the film portrays the deterioration of ones soul. Several numbers even add new depth to the classic songs, which is another innovation the film gets away with. Needlessly to say, the sound mix is wonderfully boisterous and completely absorbing, a must-see in Dolby Atmos if possible.
Even with Elton and his husband, David Furnish, as producers, “Rocketman” isn’t interested in sugar coating the reality of Elton’s destructive lifestyle. Egerton utters the line “I have been a cunt since 1975” and much of the latter half of “Rocketman” explores the darkness and isolation Elton suffered for many years with a searing punch. This is a major studio film that seemed to have had no restrictions.
“Rocketman” isn’t a film we’ve seen many times before. It’s a unique, soulful and fantastical exploration of the ups-and-downs of someone larger than life.