“Rocketman” Puts Last Years Queen Biopic In The Bargain Bin As It’s An Inventive & Exhilarating Achievement. A Brilliant Bigger Than Life Direction By Dexter Fletcher & A Star Making Performance That Will Find Taron Egerton In This Year’s Oscar Race.
Only six months ago, we got one of the biggest music biopics of all time. You know that little film that won 4 of it’s 5 Academy Award nominations, and grossed a whopping $903 million at the box office. While I love the music of Queen, the Freddy Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” I was not a huge fan of. It added details to the story, that weren’t true in real life and was added for entertainment purposes. “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” biggest problem was how watered down Freddy Mercury’s lifestyle was, feeling more like a TV movie of the week. Leaving it’s grand finale climax of Queen’s Live Aid performance as the single best thing about the film.
As gigantic as “Bohemian Rhapsody” was, here is director Dexter Fletcher’s stylish and greatly entertaining jukebox musical “Rocketman”. A new music biopic that turns music biopics on it’s head and puts “Bohemian Rhapsody”, right into the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. As you guessed it “Rocketman” is the biopic musical fantasy journey of pop music’s greatest showman Elton John.
Few rock stars have had as big an impact as Elton John, who has had more than 50 Top 40 hits and sold 300 million records since breaking out nearly 50 years ago. I had the absolute pleasure of seeing him in concert in my hometown of Maui. Hands down the best concert I’ve been to. There is nothing like hearing his iconic songs sung live with his iconic voice. Elton has had the life of a classic self-destructive rock star, the man who has everything, is adored by millions who has epic battles with sex, drugs and alcohol, all the pitfalls that come with fame are captured in a lavish production, which mask Elton’s mounting depression of feeling alone, empty and broken.
“Rocketman” depicts an unflinching portrayal of these struggles, with Taron Egerton of “Kingsmen” and “Robin Hood”, delivering a stunning Oscar worthy performance as the musical legend. From the get-go, “Rocketman” shows us we’re in for a real show-stopping musical experience. Let it be known that I emphasize the word musical, because “Rocketman” is at its core a musical. A full-bodied, extravagant musical filled with twenty of Elton John’s iconic songs, that are woven into key times of his life and it absolutely works. Dexter Fletcher creates a musical choreographed journey of the life of an iconic pop star in a storybook fantasy world.
The dazzling opening of the film has the charm and rock and roll energy of a classic musical like “Grease,” and it establishes quickly that this will be no ordinary biopic. Through Elton’s battles with alcohol and drugs, salvation comes in the form of music, as young Elton (Real name: Reginald Dwight) is seen playing classical masterpieces by ear from age 5. Having only his grandma encouraging his artistry, Elton makes it all the way to receiving a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Music. As he learns to properly compose, he is told by a record executive that he should put lyrics to his beautiful tunes, but Elton can’t think of anything to say.
The exec hands him an envelope full of songwriter Bernie Taupin’s lyrics and tells him try to write music for them. Thus begins, a 50-year magical writing partnership much like Lennon and McCartney. Bernie played by Jamie Bell (“Fantastic Four”), whose friendship gives him a newfound confidence, and soon their collaborations take them on a rapid rise to fame and fortune. Elton and Bernie’s first visit to America the night before Elton plays at the Troubadour, is fun as the little things like seeing a Tower Records for the first time brings them so much joy. But Elton soon learns that material wealth doesn’t bring happiness, as he can’t seem to find a strong relationship while his fellow homosexual manager (Richard Madden) lures him into an affair that’s manipulative and shallow.
Being continually rejected by his parents no matter how successful he becomes, this is where Elton falls into a horrible cocaine and alcohol addiction. Through another of the movie’s innovative musical fantasies, Elton is seen symbolically engaged in a life of drug-fueled orgies that only end when he winds up overdosing and in need of rehab.
These kinds of films leans so heavily on the lead performance. It’s a truly daunting challenge to portray a living or deceased musical legend, to capture the look, sound and persona without having the performance turn into a cheap impersonation. If the performance goes sideways, or isn’t believable then there goes your movie. There are no worries about that here as Taron Egerton embodies the role of Elton John, and does a phenomenal job. It’s a lovely, powerful, resonant and star making performance that only sets himself up for an Oscar nomination for best actor.
From the moment Taron Egerton walks into frame, wearing that sparkly getup with the horns and crashing a rehab session, we believe Egerton as Elton. We believe him as the painfully shy prodigy Reginald Dwight, desperate for his parents’ approval; as the genius who sits at the piano and finds the perfect notes to breathe lasting musical life into Bernie Taupin’s brilliant lyrics.
We believe him as the master showman who is in complete command of the stage, and as a man who nearly kills himself because he’s been conditioned to believe no one will ever really love him. His performance is an emotional rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows, but is always underpinned by a heartbreaking destiny for true acceptance and love. But it’s still shocking how much he embodies Elton’s spirit and pure talent. Most impressive of all is that Taron is performing all of the songs himself live, no lip syncing. It all works because he has a great voice, as he handles Elton’s complex songs whether they are pop, ballads or belting out a rocking tune.
Also excellent is Jamie Bell as Bernie Toupin. The friendship between both Elton and Bernie is absolutely beautiful. Considering the number of hit songs they shared and the friendship that has lasted time and time again, it’s incredible that they’ve managed to remain so close while having wholly different lives. The two actors work so well together, that you fully believe the depiction of their real relationship. Jamie Bell’s work here is just as impressive as Taron Egerton’s.
Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones”) is excellent as John Reid, who stays on as Elton’s manager long after their love affair explodes. Ron Howard’s daughter Bryce Dallas Howard turns in finely nuanced work as Elton’s mother, who just can’t find a way to love her son. The screenplay by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) takes full advantage of the wide-ranging catalog of Elton John and Bernie Taupin classics, cleverly matching songs from “Take Me to the Pilot” to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” to “I’m Still Standing” to match the narrative. It’s astonishing how often the lyrics are so perfectly suited to mirroring and expanding upon the moments in Elton’s life, resulting in truly beautiful sequences.
English actor turned director Dexter Fletcher, who starred in Guy Ritchie’s “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”, “Layer Cake” and “Kick-Ass”. Fletcher who took over for the fired Bryan Singer in the final weeks of principal photography on “Bohemian Rhapsody”, actually was the original choice as director before Singer. Fletcher, who had wanted to mount a much grittier “Bohemian Rhapsody” than the surviving band members would allow, finally gets the R-rated rock biopic he always wanted.
While much hype has been made of the fact that “Rocketman” sought an R rating and depicts Elton in drug taking and gay sex scenes, the movie is actually pretty discreet and brief with these portrayals, but atleast it’s there. It’s the way “Bohemian Rhapsody” should have depicted it’s leading man. “Rocketman” shows “Bohemian Rhapsody” how to do a biopic of this lifestyle right.
Dexter Fletcher has delivered a glitzy, ambitious and gorgeously appointed interpretive musical worthy of Elton’s glorious artistry. And while this is a largely affectionate and sympathetic tribute, the film pulls no punches when focusing on Elton’s personality, his self-loathing and his nearly fatal deep dive into addiction.
Serving as an Executive Producer, Elton John allows for aspects of his life to be shown under the cover of song and dance. A full-on orgy is teased to the tune of “Honky Cat”, while Elton’s drug-fueled suicide attempt is drowned out by the title track “Rocketman”, performed underwater with angelic divers swimming overhead. Elton’s music is both electrifying and soulful, blending surreal imagery to enhance the storytelling. Whether it’s literally floating into the air during a breakout performance of “Crocodile Rock” at the legendary Troubadour, or blasting off into the clouds during “Rocketman”, the film’s dreamlike musical numbers are never less than breathtaking.
“Rocketman” has an almost documentary eye for detail when it comes to re-creating Elton’s historic chapters such as his sold-out show at Dodger Stadium in 1975 when Elton wore a sequined Dodgers uniform. Fletcher’s approach of not being a simple bio pic is genius and a fresh take as it’s a musical journey inside the artist, his work and the crazy life he lead.
“Rocketman” is the ultimate Elton John fan film, developed by the ultimate fan, Elton John himself. After 50 years in the business with a hit song list longer than a CVS drug store receipt, he deserves a movie that operates on a much grander scale than a standard, paint-by-numbers showbiz biopic, and “Rocketman” is a dazzling vehicle.
It’s exactly the movie Elton John would want. “Rocketman” is just like Elton himself surrounded by talented artists in a production that is lavish, bigger than life, grandiose, sincere, serious, emotional, fun, profound and truly wonderful. This will be this years big Oscar contender: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Original Song (Elton John & Taron Egerton), Best Costumes, Best Sound Mixing…you name it! We’re halfway through the year and I have found my pick for best film of the year in “Rocketman”.
GRADE: ★★★★★ (5 out of 5)