The most important thing to know about Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is that the filmmaker who helped Bohemian Rhapsody cross the finish line less than a year ago has fashioned a decidedly different biopic about, yes, another gay musical icon. And you become keenly aware that this homage is something else entirely as soon as our hero, Elton John (Taron Egerton, incredible), joins a drug addiction group meeting dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit that’s stoned to the gods with gigantic wings and a helmet fitted with two devilish horns. John may look like a phoenix at that moment, but he hasn’t risen from the ashes just yet.
After admitting to the strangely silent group that he’s an alcoholic, drug addict, sex addict, shopping addict and bulimic, the counselor essentially asks him to tell his story from the beginning. John gets up, opens the doors and we’re transported to a 1950’s England where a younger version of John, born Reginald Dwight (Sebastian Rich), leads a musical number set to “The Bitch Is Back” while a frustrated older John, the counselor and the other group members look on. Like most of the film, it’s borderline surreal with a touch of the familiar, but it kicks things off with an effective stylistic bang.
We soon learn that young Dwight has enough musical prowess to earn a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, but at home the only real love he finds is from his grandmother (Gemma Jones, a light). His mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, bringing you her best suburban British 50’s diva realness) is too concerned with her private love affairs and his father (Steve Mackintosh, wonderfully curt) displays utter disdain for his existence, a heartbreak expressed with a teenage Dwight (Kit Connor) in a melancholy rendition of “I Want Love.” And, to state the obvious, that is the overarching theme of the picture.
As success as a recording artist eventually comes John’s way he finds brotherly love in songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, very good) and believes he’s found the love of his life in business manager John Reid (Richard Madden, delicious), a pairing that simply isn’t meant to be (by now we all know personal managers make bad boyfriends). Even after coming out to his mother and living as close to a public gay lifestyle as a major rock star could in the 1970’s (the fact he came out as bisexual to Rolling Stone in 1976 is not mentioned) he ends up getting married in 1984 to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker, memorable), a German sound engineer he meets in a recording session. It’s obvious the marriage won’t last long as the first shot after their ceremony is the pair exiting separate bedrooms.
In one telling montage, John goes to an imaginary club where an orgy breaks out (well, as much as an orgy can be depicted in a wide release studio film) and the crowd carries him on his back into their waiting arms. He’ll take affection wherever he can find it and Egerton carries the weight of John’s pain through his impressive performance. Sure, the Kingsman star can sing and dance with the best of them (he performed many of the songs live on set), but as the film goes on its the continuing longing in his eyes for any sort of peace that sticks with you. And that’s a pretty dark road for Egerton to embark on.
Without being honest about drug addiction, drunken stupors and fits of pent up rage, Rocketman would do John’s life story a disservice. It is, however, the weakest aspect of the film as the depiction of a drunk rock star shooting up cocaine as his life crumbles around him is a standard narrative trope at this point. Thank heavens Fletcher finds other ways for the film to soar.
Fletcher gloriously swings for the fences with almost every musical number in the film. His finest achievement may be when John makes his debut at The Troubadour in 1970. Beyond the amusement in seeing John and Taupin shell shocked at Los Angeles and the club’s eccentric owner Doug Weston (Tate Donovan, having a blast), Fletcher finds a way to perfectly demonstrate the reaction to his iconic performance. As John sings “Crocodile Rock” the audience begin to dance and soon they are euphorically floating on air. It’s inspired by an image of John from that show playing piano with one leg propped up in the sky and it’s a daring choice that completely pays off. Fletcher’s inspiration isn’t left to just that number either.
The title track, per se, “Rocket Man,” is staged around an overdose where John plunged himself into his pool as those partying at his home looked on. As he falls to the bottom of the pool the song begins and he sees a vision of his younger self (Rich) playing a miniature piano. Soon John is dragged out of the pool while he takes over the vocals and is transported by ambulance to Dodger stadium where dancers fit him in his iconic sequined baseball uniform. And in a miraculous recovery blasts off like a rocket into the sky. Thematically, it doesn’t make a ton of sense, but the staging is wonderfully inventive.
Often though, Lee Hallc’s screenplay seems to keep pulling the film back to commercial filmmaking formulas. It does a superb job at portraying John as the gay man he’s always been (in hindsight it makes Freddie Mercury’s portrayal in Rhapsody even more embarrassing), but the flashback to the addicts meeting motif is clunky. You often forget the future John is still there until it randomly pops up again. Like a stage musical, the movie also suffers with a majority of the big numbers occurring in just the first half of the picture (why it doesn’t end with a genuine showstopper is head-scratching) and the creative implementation of the end cards are cringeworthy. But these are mostly minor quibbles.
As the film comes to an emotional climax, the 29-year-old actor begins a stripped-down version of “I’m Still Standing” that brings John’s journey to sobriety and personal peace to a triumphant end. After carrying the film on his shoulders for two hours Edgerton’s performance is so captivating, so transcendent that he somehow leaves you gasping for more. If only there was an encore.
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