|Original caricature by Jeff York of Taron Egerton as Elton John in ROCKETMAN. (copyright 2019)|
If a biography of a rock star is going to be told onscreen, you know certain beats are to be expected. Any rags-to-riches story in the music world will showcase a humble artist who becomes a big star, but then almost loses it all to ego, drugs, and excess. Whether it’s Jim Morrison or Ray Charles or Freddie Mercury, such stories are fairly predictable. What distinguishes them is in the telling. Elton John’s story, told in the new film ROCKETMAN, follows a similar trajectory but what makes it so exceptional is the joie de vivre in the telling. The movie is filled with hellzapoppin’ energy, brilliant performances, and an integration of songs into the script done with the panache of a Broadway musical. It’s a bold, involving telling of the history of one of the world’s most extraordinary artists, transcending a fairly obvious storyline of up’s and down’s.
Perhaps knowing that such beats would be obvious, the filmmakers behind ROCKETMAN pushed to serve up John’s story in ways that perpetually catch the viewer off-guard. Thus, the film plays with time, structure, and reality as its narrative weaves in and out of fantasy, flashbacks, and the breaking of the fourth wall. The movie also knows that it’s a musical and revels in it. This venture could have easily been done on Broadway, and frankly should be after this, with characters walking out of serious scenes into chorus lines of dancers waiting for them in the streets. It’s a serious story, yes, but one that never resists being flamboyantly theatrical.
The film is as cheeky as Sir Elton himself, demonstrating the same frothy sensibility that he’s displayed on stage, in music videos, and during interviews for the past five decades. John has always been a consummate entertainer, one who delights in the flash and panache, knowing that it makes all of his incredible music even more worthy of an expensive concert ticket. He’s one of the executive producers here and his sensibilities no doubt inspired all associated with the project to match his flair.
Director Derek Fletcher perfectly matches such sensibilities, as does screenwriter Lee Hall, from the very get-go. John (Taron Egerton) bursts through the doors of a rehabilitation center, still in costume from a concert gig, ready to attend his first group therapy session. He’s dressed as the devil, with sequins and wings as accessories, literally carrying his demons with him. Soon, he’ll be opening up about all of his addictions, peccadillos, and how his unloving home led him down such a destructive path. The gait of John is heroic, filmed in slow motion, as he starts the journey to self-understanding. It’s so dramatic as to almost play as parody, and indeed, the orange onesie helps underline the outrageous approach to the start of a film.
Soon though, such over-the-top window dressing will be countered by the utmost seriousness of John’s loneliness as a child, struggling to feel wanted by a mercurial mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and an indifferent father (Steven Mackintosh). Even though the 10-year-old John was discovered to be immensely talented, able to play the piano by ear, only his grandmother (Gemma Jones) gave him any due attention. It’s such a shame that so many artists have such an awful beginning, but it’s John’s too.
Even with a troubled home life, the young Reggie, his original name, manages to find solace in the music as he imagines conducting an orchestra at night after “light’s out.” They show up there, right in his bedroom, as the film starts to blur the serious with the sensational. And when the story shifts back to John in rehab, he and his group join the flashback, dancing on the streets with his family and younger self.
The film continues to pinball back and forth like that, bouncing from serious revelations about John’s life to fantastical representations of it, underscored by his music. We see John struggling to start his music career, partnering with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and wrestling with his homosexuality, all interwoven with breakout musical numbers utilizing the John/Taupin songbook. It works spectacularly well, and often incorporates the spectacular. When John performs at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, he levitates off the stage, feeling the endorphin rush of his performance. The audience is lifted off their feet too while grooving to this new star singing “Crocodile Rock.”
Fletcher understands what music does to the artist and the listener and literally translates such feelings into his action onscreen. Later, when a drugged-up John feels used and abused, he belly-flops into his Hollywood mansion pool. At the bottom of the water, he discovers his childish self who sings to him. Meanwhie, party guests dive in to save the singer, albeit not before performing some water acrobatics to underscore the theatricality of John’s life.
As the superstar spirals downward gains steam, so do the fantasy numbers. They lift the film, giving it a buoyancy that counters the down turns. It helps keep the film from becoming depressing, even though much of what happens to John definitely is. His search for love haunts him for decades of his adult life and the movie earns the tears.
Even at its darkest ebb, Egerton holds the audience with his uncanny portrayal of John. He’s equal to Raimi Malek’s achievement in last year’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, but Egerton sings as John where Malek lip-synched as Freddie Mercury. Egerton sings well too, capturing the essence of John’s style without doing a flat-out imitation of it. More importantly, the young actor truly brings the legend to life, making John lovable, risible, and horrible, often all in the same scene. It will be interesting to see how the awards-worthy Egerton fairs compared to Malek’s trajectory on his way to the Oscar later this year. He should be a major contender.
In fact, comparisons to BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY are unfortunate but inevitable with ROCKETMAN. Yet, while the story of Queen arrived on screen first, almost every element of this film is superior. BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY’s narrative was ridiculously bland and too straightforward. It glossed over Mercury’s sexuality, going for a watered down PG-13 rating. And it barely managed to make the other members of Queen characters at all. ROCKETMAN doesn’t have those problems. Its narrative zigs and zags, it’s rated R to give a fuller portrayal of John’s sexual proclivities, and even the smallest roles register as interesting people. Interestingly, Fletcher replaced the troubled Bryan Singer as the director on BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY to complete that troubled film. Small world, eh?
Fletcher does better her, and he uses the camera, editing, and superb production values to bring out the best in the story. He’s also spent most of his career as an actor and that’s evident in the superb performances he gets from his cast. Egerton deserves Oscar consideration, for sure, but so does Howard for her nuanced turn as John’s passive/aggressive mother. Bell is always sharp, and he makes Taupin a moral center here. Plus, the two child actors (Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor) playing the young John do incredible things with their demanding roles. They sing, dance, and build the pathos with remarkable clarity. Even the third-tier characters come off thoroughly with Tate Donovan as Troubadour owner Doug Weston and Celinde Schoenmaker as John’s wife Renate being two stand-outs.
It would have behooved ROCKETMAN to show John’s relationship with Ryan White, the teen AIDS activist in the 80’s who drove so much of the musician’s zeal for fighting that horrid disease. Just as much of a missed opportunity is the film’s failure to show the relationship John had with Princess Diana. His “Candle in the Wind” re-do for her funeral remains the best-selling single in UK history, but none of that shows up here. Granted, this biopic cannot cover all the decades of John’s career, but those key turning points are screaming to be included here.
ROCKETMAN tells a story about the artist’s search for truth in his life and his work, and it blends those themes together vividly, mixing the fantastic in with the realistic. And it works. It will make even the casual fan of John’s music run home to download his work on iTunes. And his incredible tale will stay with you long after the credits have rolled showing how faithful Julian Day’s costumes were. Elton John rocks, and so does this film.