Based on a True Fantasy.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between the Elton John biopic, Rocketman (titled after his 1972 smash), and last year’s foot-stomping Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), which took home a bunch of golden statuettes at the 91st Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Actor — there’s no denying the raw energy and emotion behind Rami Malek’s remarkable portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. For those not in the know, both films are ‘directed by’ Dexter Fletcher, Eddie the Eagle (2015), who came in to finish BoRap after disgraced moviemaker Bryan Singer was booted off set for behind-the-scenes conflict. Both films also chart the lives of popular British musicians who were producing pioneering stuff at round about the same time — Queen and Sir Elton apparently knew one other, too. Heck, both films even feature former music manager John Reid, Elton’s ex-lover, who managed the two artists, played here by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden and Aidan Gillen in Rhapsody (also from HBO’s Thrones). If anything, filmmakers should have used this common ground to forge a shameless Rock-centered Cinematic Universe. Just imagine, Malek cropping up as the lead singer of Queen — ingenious!
Unlike Rhapsody, however, Rocketman is a ‘musical fantasy,’ a fantastical take on the early years of Elton’s life, born Reginald Kenneth Dwight before re-branding himself as Elton Hercules John; even though the film cites Beatles singer-songwriter John Lennon as a direct influence on the name change, it’s the ‘John’ from Blues legend Long John Baldry that Reggie merges with saxophone player Elton Dean, whom he jammed with, that forms the stage name — and the Hercules, well, that comes from the name of a horse on the British small-screen sitcom Steptoe and Son (1962), not from Greek mythology.
While I don’t mind the big power anthems of Queen, I absolutely adore Elton as an artist — I pretty much own all of his albums, with many of his tracks, including breakthrough single ‘Your Song,’ from his self-titled second album (released in 1970), being all-time faves — and that’s why I was so eager and excited to see this bold-looking, warts-and-all biopic, surveying an extraordinary man who spent much of his formative years battling with identity, sexuality, regret, and addiction.
Of course, Rocketman gives us some of this — there’s no shying away from John’s homosexuality, substance abuse and self-loathing, the picture quite graphic when it comes to (gay) sex and drugs (and rock ‘n’ roll, too, I guess). What’s unfortunate, though, is that it plays like a big-budget episode of television’s Glee (2009-15), meaning that John’s chart-topping catalog is presented non-chronologically, many of the songs having little relevance or context to the story, chanted by multiple characters as well as Elton; the 2001 Grammy-nominated ballad ‘I Want Love,’ for instance, is sung by multiple people who weave in and out of rooms/ corridors of the Dwight family household — does it work? Yes and no, depending on what type of ‘story’ you’re after. We don’t get a lot of particulars on his records or head-bopping hits either, with details of his rise to fame merely touched on. Significant life events are also absent or skated over — think his marriage (in 1984) and subsequent divorce (’88) to sound engineer Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker). Come to think of it, the film has more in common with 2007’s Across the Universe, a Vietnam-War-based romance set against the sounds of The Beatles (in which songs have been interpreted/ adapted to fit the narrative) than a conventional Hollywood-style biography.
Sure, as a jukebox musical (featuring both recognizable and lesser known tracks — but by no means exhaustive), Rocketman is pure electric. The film is beautifully shot, brimming with flashy, era-accurate sets and exuberant, diamond-decked, sequin-coated costumes, dazingly captured by cinematographer George Richmond, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017), who, along with costume designer Julian Day, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), and production designer Marcus Rowland, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), are sure to be recognized come award season. Interestingly, Rocketman feels as though it takes place in the same world as BoRap, possessing a similar aesthetic to last year’s runaway sensation — again, shared universe potential.
Of the highlights, there’s an inventive one-take in which Captain Fantastic (powerfully pounding on a keyboard) performs ‘Pinball Wizard,’ the camera circling around the songster as he jumps from one sold-out venue of applauding crowds to the next, this sequence showcasing some of his most exotic (and signature) stagewear. Scenes of John recording catchy pop ditties, such as duet ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ with Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon) are also a treat — if only there were more of these fun interactions as we all know that Elton has a connection with the Royal Family, as well as having collaborated with music idols like Madonna and the ‘token queen of rock,’ David Bowie. There’s also a stunning recreation of the exuberant 1983 ‘I’m Still Standing’ music video, filmed years ago in Cannes and Nice, which manages to replicate (rather impeccably) the iconic ‘human domino’ beach scene — besides being a euphoric way to draw the curtain on the proceedings, this remarkable restoration is another reminder of the talent behind this hugely ambitious project. Fletcher does, from time to time, turn to music biopic clichés, using headlines and newspaper clippings superimposed on-screen to relay John’s quick climb to the top. For the most part, though, Rocketman is a visual coup de maître.
It’s in its storytelling, though, that Rocketman struggles to take flight, its dreamy, whimsical structure doing a disservice to the showman’s larger-than-life career, exploring only part of Elton’s life, not all of it, robbing us from seeing what could’ve been a sprawling decade-hopping epic. Written by Lee Hall, Victoria & Abdul (2017), and using a rehab group session as a framing device, the picture traces 30 or so years of John’s life, the hitmaker sharing his personal highs and lows (demons and delights lay bare), the prima donna clad (ironically) in a fiery form-fitting lycra jumpsuit, complete with feather-glazed wings, towering (yet tacky) horns and heart-shaped sunglasses.
Growing up in the 1950s as an only child in Pinner, Middlesex, England, we meet Elton as a young music prodigy (Matthew Illesley) living with his slightly heartless yet somewhat compassionate mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), who supports Reg’s love of rock and roll, and cold, emotionally distant father, Stanley (well-known British star Steven Mackintosh), who’d previously served in the Royal Air Force as a flight lieutenant, whom Elton longs to be acknowledged and accepted by. But it’s Reggie’s loving grandmother, Ivy (Gemma Jones), who’s his biggest fan, encouraging his piano lessons and driving him to his very first Royal Academy of Music class. From there we get glimpses of his stint as a pianist for the R&B outfit Bluesology, which coincides with his meeting of lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), aka the Brown Dirt Cowboy, whom Reggie forges a long-serving friendship/ partnership with — I urge you to give Elton’s 1975 album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy a listen, an autobiographical account of the duo’s time making tunes together in London during the late ’60 (the title track alone is incredible). Elton soon tops the charts, then it’s booze, parties, and poison, which lead him on a downward spiral of depression and anxiety.
The further this honky-tonk tale travels, however, the key relationships, influences and connections in John’s life get kind of lost, muddled in a confusing cloud that, well, mirrors the subconscious; admittedly, Fletcher does an astonishing job blending reality with fiction, but at the expense of both cohesion and logic, as things become awfully unclear: at times characters not only break the fourth wall but break into song and dance, which, while adding a pinch of surrealness, rob the narrative of any realism. Other things just don’t add up; for example, the movie ends with a clip of a 1984 video, even though we know the story’s moved beyond 1988, while Elton and Bernie, who’ve supposedly ‘never had a falling out,’ are seen quarreling. In my opinion, a traditional-type structure would’ve probably served this story better.
But, at the center of it all is an incredible lead performance by 29-year-old Brit Taron Egerton, best known for playing Eggsy in Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman series — Vaughn serves as a producer here. Stepping into the glittered stilettos and slipping on weird and wonderful eyewear, as well as donning all the flamboyant, over-the-top getups one can squeeze into a 121-minutes, Egerton does an exceptional job as the titular rocketeer, really giving his dramatic muscles a workout. His resemblance to a twentysomething John is uncanny — Egerton can hold his own when belting out a tune, too. Not a moment goes by where you don’t believe that Egerton isn’t Elton, a man of heart and hurt. Other noteworthy turns come from Richard Madden, even though his manipulative Reid seems like a completely different person to the guy we encountered in Bohemian Rhapsody, and Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell (all grown up now), who outdoes Egerton in the singing department. Oh, and Australia’s Tate Donovan, Argo (2012), also shows up in brief yet amusing cameo as renowned nightclub owner Doug Weston, who once ran the legendary Troubadour.
For a movie about human connection, it’s a shame that we don’t get to see Elton, who for so long craved love and affection, meet his life partner, Canadian filmmaker David Furnish, outside of an image just before the credits start to roll. Produced by Sir Elton himself, Rocketman clearly has the subject’s stamp of approval, but for me, I dunno, maybe his incredible legacy is just ‘unfilmable’ — Rocketman is not a terrible movie by any stretch of the imagination, just not an overly outstanding one. Elton, as an artist, has had such a profound impact on my life that, perhaps, a two-hour silver-screen biography was never going to reach my soaring expectations. Who knows, there may be an amazing Elton John film out there, somewhere — this, unfortunately, is not it.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by S-Littner