THE STORY – An epic musical fantasy about the uncensored human story of Sir Elton John’s breakthrough years.
THE CAST – Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden & Bryce Dallas Howard
THE TEAM – Dexter Fletcher (Director) & Lee Hall (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 121 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
Last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” brought about an intense divide between critics and audiences over its portrayal of its iconic musical legend, Freddie Mercury. Director Dexter Fletcher stepped in to complete the movie but here, we get to see his full vision for another iconic musical subject in Elton John. Where “Bohemian Rhapsody” was seen as a safe and at times untrue biopic in an effort to portray its subject in a more positive light, “Rocketman” is a better and more complex film for the very fact that it feels raw, honest and never pulls back any of its punches to show us the purest version of its star in a manner that both pays tribute to him and serves as a cautionary warning for those hoping to pursue a life of fame.
Born as Reginald Kenneth Dwight in 1947, “Rocketman” takes us through Elton John’s life in unexpected ways. Portrayed for the first 20 minutes by Matthew Illesley and then by Taron Egerton afterward and until the end, the film explores his upbringing in Pinner, Middlesex with his parents (Played by Bryce Dallas Howard & Steven Mackintosh ), his fascination with rock music despite being trained classically at the Royal Academy of Music, to his career starting gig at the Troubadour and beyond. All framed from the musician’s flashback perspective from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (where he also admits he had addictions to cocaine and sex), it explores his triumphs and failures as a human being during the most important and influential years of his life.
We have seen glimpses of Taron Egerton’s talent before in films such as “Kingsman” and his last collaboration with Fletcher, “Eddie The Eagle“. “Robin Hood” aside, he is an extraordinarily gifted actor and “Rocketman” proves that. While he may not sound exactly like Elton John, there is no lip syncing done here. With a bit of makeup, costuming, and enchanting energy from the actor himself, Egerton fully embodies everything that Elton John stood for and goes even deeper to explore his faults in a way that will surely get his critics to perceive the young actor in a new light. It’s by far and away the best performance of his career and it’s easy to see why Elton John himself gave him his seal of approval.
Egerton’s enthusiasm is matched by Fletcher’s creativity and vision. Elton John was a trailblazer that captured the hearts and minds of the world with his on-stage antics, flair, and personality. Fletcher honors that originality in the boldness of his vision for “Rocketman” by staging it as a legitimate musical at times equipped with background choruses who sing and dance, ever-shifting sets as the camera gracefully glides through each one of Elton’s songs and fantastical elements which not only transport us to the time period itself but also into Elton’s own mind. It’s a wonderous musical, filled with imagination and creativity that one can gleefully get lost in at times, even if you’re not the biggest Elton John fan in the world.
While Fletcher’s direction and Egerton’s performance are perfectly suited towards Elton John’s life story, the screenplay is the only area where the film runs into some of the tired and true cliches we have come to expect from the musical biopic genre. Some of these are unavoidable (the number of drugs and booze that Elton consumed, which drove him to push the ones he cared about the most away from him) while others could’ve been conveyed a bit differently (another montage recapping a musician’s skyrocketing success). Richard Madden’s character of Elton John’s manager and lover John Reid, is also written a bit too simplistically through no fault from the actor himself. He just lacks the necessary depth to avoid being a walking cliche we have seen in countless other movies like this before whereas Jamie Bell is able to find small glimpses of humanity in his sweet portrayal as Elton’s best friend, songwriter and brother he never had, Bernie Taupin.
Despite some expected turns in the screenplay, the film does settle on two neat themes which weave their way through the entire story with clarity and thematic depth – knowing who you are and embracing it and sacrificing love for fame. Elton’s inner conflict to expose his sexuality publicly at a time when it could’ve potentially ruined his career is a heartwrenching and yet, uplifting story. We see him rise through his passion for music, we see him fall into near death and oblivion despite worldwide success and fame because he is missing the one thing the Beatles told us we all need in this world: love. It’s a testament to Fletcher’s handling of the story that this at times dark and sad depiction of one man’s quest for identity and love can leave us with a positive takeaway at the end and not feel mishandled or rushed but truly earned.
“Rocketman” is a fitting tribute to a man who broke all the rules and established himself as a musical icon. His songs are as popular today as they were decade’s ago (as evidenced by the groups of people who joyfully sung along the lyrics in my theater as they played on screen). Taron Egerton gives this role everything he has and it clearly shows, as we’re sucked into Elton’s charisma, on stage presence and behind the scenes turmoil as he struggles through life just as we all do, searching for love and acceptance despite his massive wealth and fame. After the disappointment which was “Bohemian Rhapsody” for me last year, this new musical biopic satisfied me and made me realize how wonderful life is that this movie and Elton John is in the world.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Taron Egerton’s best performance yet as the colorful, flamboyant & emotionally torn Elton John. Dexter Fletcher’s pull no punches storytelling that takes risks and does his trailblazing subject justice. Wonderfully staged musical sequences.
THE BAD – The screenplay can’t manage to avoid certain cliches of the musical biopic genre.