OnScreen Review: "Rocketman"

  • Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic

We are beginning to see a revival of the musical biopic, and with the box office success of Bohemian Rhapsody, there are sure to be even more in the pipeline. Following on the immediate heels of that Freddie Mercury feature is Rocketman, which tells the life story of Elton John.

Elton John’s is a story that is decadent and indulgent, full of excess and demons. Which is to say that it is story that is tailor-made for the musical biopic formula, something which has been done to death over the years and was even brilliantly satirized by 2008’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Walk Hard proved to be something of a wake-up call for people attempting the musical biopic, a call that Bohemian Rhapsody clearly missed as it falls for practically every biopic temptation. Biopics today need to distinguish themselves in some way from the crowd; for instance, Love & Mercy featured two actors playing Brian Wilson at very different stages in his life while 2018’s Blaze tells the story of a highly influential musician in Blaze Foley who’s story is less well-known and obscure to mainstream audiences.

Thankfully, Rocketman makes the effort to have at least two distinguishing characteristics. I’m sure it’s been done in other biopics, but director Dexter Fletcher (who finished Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired) and screenwriter Lee Hall lean heavily on the music of Elton John (Taron Egerton) to the point of weaving it into the fabric of his life to tell his story. From being a musical prodigy named Reginald Dwight in a troubled home to performing at the local pub as a teenager to flying to America and becoming the Elton John everyone would come to know, scenes  throughout the movie turn into a musical of Elton or others singing his songs to express themselves (“I Want Love”) or to heighten a situation (“Tiny Dancer”). They’re also used as transitions (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” early on) between periods of time in his life, serving almost like music video interludes at some points.

The other thing the film does is employ a sense of magical realism to Elton’s music and eventual fame. One of the key moments of this in the film is Elton’s first performance at the Troubadour in California. He goes on stage to perform, initially nervous, but things click almost immediately wit the audience as he begins playing “Crocodile Rock.” Halfway through the performance, at the bridge of the song where “la la las” are being sung, gravity shuts off for a few moments as Elton and eventually the whole crowd begin to float up into the air before he brings them slamming back down to the earth with the chorus. It’s a great visual illustration of how music can make the outside world fade into the background, the communal power of a live performance, and how music can unlock something in people.

Taron Egerton, known to this point mostly for the Kingsmen movies, fully embodies and embraces the role of playing Elton John. As an actor in his mid-to-late-20s, he is at just the right age to be able to pull off playing Elton John from age 18 to nearly 40. It also helps that he can capably carry the singing on his own. He is able to portray equally well the flamboyant, bombastic, larger than life Elton John and the behind the scenes, slow-moving train wreck Elton John that most people only read tabloid rumors about.

The film uses his stint in rehab as a framing device for the film, which opens the film with him marching in dressed in a massive sequined devil suit, ready to play the bad guy at a group meeting at the Betty Ford Clinic. As the film progresses, he eventually sheds the suit piece by piece, almost like removing the armor he has built up for himself over the years, until it is just the person and not the persona that is sitting in the circle talking to the group (and we the audience). It’s an armor that he has put on for himself after years of looking for love. Love that he didn’t find as a child named Reginald Dwight with a disinterested mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a most absentee father. Love that he didn’t find with his manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden). Love that he didn’t find in addictions to drugs, alcohol, or sex. Love that he couldn’t find in a marriage to Renate Blauel. And in rehab, love that he discovers he didn’t even have for himself.

It’s a wise choice of the film to position Elton’s relationship with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) as the central relationship in his life, not just as musical collaborators but as best friends, and how their friendship weathered the very high highs and very low lows of Elton’s fame. It ends up being the one constant source of real support for him when almost everyone else is giving him wavering support at best or having relationships that are purely transactional based on what he can provide for them.

Musical biopics are highly formulaic and while Rocketman doesn’t reinvent the formula, it has enough flare and personality to make it stand out and not be derivative. Elton John lived a the rock star life to the fullest and remains unapologetic about it. Rocketman embraces the messy, complicated parts of Elton John’s personal life and highlights his music in a way that uniquely celebrates his discography with some great musical numbers and a vibrant lead performance from Taron Egerton.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars