Director: Dexter Fletcher
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Steven Mackintosh, Tate Donovan, Matthew Illesley, Kit Connor, Celinde Shoenmaker
Running Time: 121 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
It was never going to be an easy road for Dexter Fletcher's Elton John musical biopic, Rocketman, especially following Bohemian Rhapsody, for which Rami Malek won the Oscar for inhabiting legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. And when considering the same director actually stepped to finish the latter film, it makes comparisons between the two especially unavoidable. But if all those criticisms that Rhapsody played as a paint-by-numbers biopic seemed unfair, that's because they were, rehashing the same old arguments everyone makes about the genre.
Ignoring that biopics are supposed to cover the full scope and meaning of a figure's life, the complaints just never seem to cease whenever one is released, regardless of its quality. Whether it's manufactured outrage at a script daring to depict events either in or out of chronological order, including scenes that allegedly never happened, or even worse, ones that did. But what no one seems willing to admit is that the format has been around this long because when it works, it really works, and is usually only as compelling as its subject allows. It's also what the fillmaker chooses to do within that admittedly rigid framework that can make all the difference, with casting a bit more crucial than it would be otherwise.
By these standards, Rocketman, which was widely praised for sidestepping a lot of typical genre tropes, could still be considered a "standard" biopic, with the important caveat that we should probably start reassessing that designation as a compliment. It may finally be time to admit that biopics can be fun and well-made, especially when the very structure of this musical does as good a job as any of conveying the essence of that person.
Despite some broad similarities in their outsized personalities and career trajectories, Elton John isn't Freddie Mercury and any film covering his life would have to be an entirely different animal. Elton might be harder to tackle since his music's been played to death for decades on end, with few clammoring for the onscreen dramatization of an artist who could be considered overexposed, at least compared to Mercury, who only now seems to be getting his due. If both performers had a flare for flamboyance and theatrics, that's the area where Elton was incomparable, with Fletcher wisely using that as the film's driving engine.
Elton John might be the only artist where a full-blown, spare no expenses musical about their life scored to all his hits feels completely appropriate. It's what Across The Universe could have been if they didn't try to shoehorn a fictional story into the Beatles' entire song catalogue. This takes the opposite route, as Elton's songs legitimately feel like an organic extension of his life, inseparable from the journey we see unfolding in front of us.
If it's less dramatically powerful than Rhapsody, that's only because of the tone of Elton as a person and artist, which Taron Egerton magnificently captures in a nomination-worthy performance. A staggering visual achievement loaded with dazzling musical sequences, it digs deeply into his drug use, conflicted sexuality and unhappy childhood, before settling on an ending that feels slightly less than what it deserves. But it's all undeniably in lock-step with Elton's entire persona and career, making it impossible to walk away without a greater appreciation of everything he's brought to the table.
From an addiction rehab center, Elton John (Egerton) recounts the story of his life via flashbacks, all the way back to his days growing up in 1950's Britain, when the then-Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) grappled with crippling shyness as a child, as well as rocky relationship with his strict, uninterested military father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh). Some relief comes in his bonding with carfree mom Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and even more supportive grandmother, Ivy (Gemma Jones) over his burgeoning musical talent.
After excelling at piano from an early age, Reggie starts playing pubs as a teen (played by Kit Connor), gravitating toward rock music before eventually landing in a band and getting signed to a label deal by cigar-chomping DJM chief Dick James (Stephen Graham). Re-christened as "Elton John," it's Reggie's introduction to songwriter and eventual best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) that causes his career to soar to unimaginable heights in the 70's, only to come crashing down when he enters a toxic relationship with manipulative and abusive manager John Reid (Richard Madden). Falling into an abyss of wild debauchery fueled by self-destructive drug and alcohol abuse, Elton must face his personal demons head-on in order to save both his life and career, and perhaps finally be at peace with where Reggie Dwight ends and Elton John begins.
Lee Hall's script is meticulously contructed around some of the artist's biggest hits, providing the soundtrack to the scenes and sequences of his life. The concept itself seems hokey on paper and shouldn't work, if not for the fact that the execution is virtually flawless.While it may be initially jarring to see Elton walk into rehab in a flamboyantly bright orange devil costume before we abruptly flash back to the 1950's with characters in the street singing "The Bitch is Back," it's definitely going somewhere. Fletcher really hits the ground running with this structure, which manages to hit on all the key points on Reggie's path toward becoming Elton, with each musical sequence perfectly encapsulating a specific snapshot in time.
Movie musicals can be off-putting in the sense that they're not stage productions, nor should they be. So when a character spontaneously bursts into song it can fall flat on its face if the story, tone, direction or energy is off. There's a reason the genre isn't for everyone's tastes, and since it's so rarely pulled off successfully, it's easy to be skeptical. But this is one of the few recent ones that really gets it right, as there isn't a single song in here that feels squeezed in because they're due for a big number.
This is who Elton John is, and whether you're a fan or not, it's impossible to deny that this captures that in a bottle. His songs are who he is, making Fletcher's approach work in a way it probably wouldn't for other artists. But we get the impression that he considered himself a performer first, and what Egerton pushes through is that love of showmanship, which practically burns through the screen, making the fact that the actor actually does his own singing (really well) seem almost secondary.
All this is evident in the film's most memorable musical sequence, when a then low-key Elton first taps into his larger-than-life persona and brings down the Troubadour with "Crocodile Rock," creating an electric atmosphere that just builds and builds, reaching a cresendo that literally lifts him and an enraptured audience off their feet. Brilliantly filmed and staged by Fletcher, it signals from that point on nothing will be the same for the former Reginald Dwight, as does a later underwater scene that visually juxtaposes the movie's title song with his suicide attempt.
If Elton was the consumate showman, the artist component is best reflected in his friendship with collaborator Taupin, which went well beyond songwriting despite remaining completely platonic. As the only person who saw Elton exactly for who he was, it ends up being the only relationship in the performer's life that doesn't seem entirely transactional. Whether he's pining for love and approval from his parents or an emotionally and physically abusive manager. attempting to downplay his homosexuality in a failed marriage to friend Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) Taupin's unwavering committment to this partnership during Elton's darkest days make their union the film's most memorable, if certainly his least toxic.
Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody or the Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy from a few years back, you don't get too much insight into the "process" of creating because this simply isn't that kind of movie, nor where the bread is buttered when it comes to Elton's career. What we do get are the emotional highs and devastating lows, which strangely seem to exist on the same plane because of Egerton's performance. The framing device of him telling his story from rehab works because the actor does legitimately play him as a spectator to his own life. In even the biggest successes there's this undercurrent of sadness that when combined with his startling resemblance to the real person and painstakingly accurate recreations of key moments (such as the Dodger Stadium performance), make for quite the experience.
The ending's only flaw is it's one of those familar epilogues that updates you on the singer's life, which seems completely unnecessary unless you've been living under a rock for the past decade. It also looks like something straight out of a cheap TV special, ranking as one of the more forgettable of its kind and almost completely at odds with the visionary sequence preceding it (a mind-blowing recreation of his "I'm Still Standing" video). But this is actually a small complaint since that video will be remembered as the real closer anyway, as well as a reminder that Elton's journey, unlike so many of his contemporaries, will always be more closely associated with triumph than tragedy. But what's so suprising about Rocketman are the wild detours it takes in showing us how close he actually came to burning out his own fuse.