Review: Music Takes Center Stage Telling Elton John’s Story in Rocketman
I’ve already spotted think-pieces about the Elton John biopic Rocketman that break down scenes from the movie and declare them truthful or not, and after you see the film, you’ll realize what a futile and ridiculous endeavor that is. When you label your movie a “musical fantasy” in the press notes, truth is a concept rather than a goal for screenwriter Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher (perhaps not coincidentally, the man who was brought in to finish directing last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody when director Bryan Singer was taken off the film). They use songs by John (Taron Egerton, who sings all the songs heard in the film) and lyricist Bernie Taupin (played by Jamie Bell) as a framework to convey the childhood and adult pain John had to go through to become the colorful, powerful performer who became a legend.[caption id="attachment_52394" align="aligncenter" width="1296"] Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures[/caption]
Make no mistake, Rocketman is no needle-drop biopic, and I believe we only get one or two scenes that show us a song’s humble beginnings as John tinkers on the piano with Taupin’s words in front of him, and out pops one of the greatest songs ever recorded. Instead, songs are used to enhance the biographic story being told. This is a full-on musical, with characters breaking out into song in the middle of scenes, dance numbers occurring spontaneously, and lighting changes to fit the mood. Sometimes, songs from a much later era are used in scenes of John as young Reginald Dwight, for no other reason than John and Taupin didn’t write a song until the 1980s, for example, that expressed the mood of that moment in the past. It’s a bold choice, but it works because the emotional performance by Egerton is too powerful to worry about chronology.
Little Reggie has the double-barrel burden of an uncaring father (Steven Mackintosh) who left the family when Elton was just a boy, and a mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) who was kind enough to stick around but not kind enough to do so without reminding her only son of how much she gave up by not giving him up for adoption. Despite all this, Reggie was a piano genius, went to the Royal Academy of Music, and grew up wanting to play rock music, even though he couldn’t write songs well. But when Taupin entered his life, they became instant friends partly because the songwriter seemed to be able to tap into John’s brain and pull out his state of mind.
The framework of Rocketman is John at an AA meeting, having just walked out of a Madison Square Garden show in head-to-toe devil costume, complete with horns and wings. He’s telling his life story to a group of strangers and discovering some hard truths about himself in the process. Again, this may not have happened at all, but it’s a strong framing device and makes way for the songs—mostly famous ones, but a few lesser-known tracks used to underscore the emotional weight of a particular moment.
Director Fletcher directs his Eddie the Eagle star masterfully, and Egerton as John is nearly flawless. His singing is a perfect combination of making it perfectly clear who he’s imitating but also making the songs his own. There are times when you simply forget that you aren’t watching Elton John. One of the other key figures in John’s life is his first manager John Reid, played by the one-time Rob Stark, Richard Madden, making a good case for him to be in contention for the next James Bond. Reid also seduces John, and the two were both business partners and lovers for an extended time, even though it’s clear early on that Reid is a snake; John knows it too, he just doesn’t care.
While the film does work to re-create some important moments in John’s career, as mentioned earlier, the idea of truth and accuracy is more of a suggestion than the rule. Rocketman is more like an impressionistic painting of John’s life than an autobiography, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to envision this story being told in a stage musical years down the road. For example, we know that John’s breakthrough in America was a series of shows at the Troubadour club in West Hollywood, and that show is restaged faithfully for the film. Do we believe that John and the entire audience actually floated during the performance? No, but I’m guessing that many of those in attendance believed they did, and that’s the feeling that Fletcher and his team are attempting to capture. Does it always work? No, but I admire the attempt because it’s highly effective at capturing the feeling of John’s world, not the reality.
The costumes are there, the hundreds of wacky eyeglasses, the electric stage persona, and the excesses that seem to go hand in hand with a rock star lifestyle—drugs, alcohol and sex (all of which John says he’s addicted to in his AA meeting). Some of it feels cliché, but in the career years covered in Rocketman (late 1960s to early 1980s), some of these clichés were birthed. There are a handful of nice supporting performances, including Matthew Illesley (as young Reggie), Tate Donovan (as the Troubadour owner), and Gemma Jones as Ivy, Reggie’s supportive and encouraging grandmother. But in the end, it’s the music that leads the charge. In the context of Elton John's life, many of his songs take on extra meaning. The result feels fantastical and edges into the realm of magical realism; if that wasn’t built to tell Elton John’s story, I don’t know what was.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3vO8E2e6G0
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.