by Julian Spivey
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell & Richard Madden
Runtime: 2 hours & 1 minute
Elton John has always seemed a larger than life performer with a personality to match so creating a biopic to tell about the rise of his career and the hardships faced in his life was going to be a tough task. Director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall knocked “Rocketman” out of the park under the watchful eye of Elton John himself, who served as an executive producer along with his husband David Furnish.
I’ve been an Elton John fan my entire life – and finally got to see him live in concert earlier this year on his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Farewell Tour stop in Tulsa, Okla. – and even I didn’t know just how hard things were for him both growing up and during the heyday of his career, despite knowing about the excesses and addictions he faced. “Rocketman” pulls no punches when it comes to the rough times Elton John faced and that’s what makes it such a honest feeling and touching biopic and not one that seems glossed over, which is what some critics and fans alike took away from last year’s massive popular “Bohemian Rhapsody,” about the life of Freddie Mercury and the music of Queen, which was actually somewhat saved by Fletcher to finish production after the firing of original director Bryan Singer. The studio wanted “Rocketman” to see some of that success ‘Rhapsody’ did and wanted certain things – like a gay sex scene trimmed or cut to reach a PG-13 rating, rather than a R-rating. Thankfully those in charge of the film didn’t budge because it just wouldn’t have seemed like the same story had they glossed over some of the things that would’ve given it a lesser rating.
“Rocketman” begins where so many biopics do with the childhood of Reginald Dwight, well before he takes the stage name Elton John. Reggie doesn’t have a great upbringing with parents who are basically trash – his father wanting nothing to do with his son and his mother preferring to party and pawn of any actual motherly duties to Reggie’s grandmother, the only true parental figure in his family. The only one who truly seems to care about the boy and his interests, which become the piano at an early age. As a fan of Elton John, I never knew his parents were essentially worthless, but it’s a great place to start for the film because essentially all of his problems later on in life come from the fact that he was never given the love he needed and deserved as a child.
One of the movie’s finest scenes comes early on and is used as a transition from the childhood of Reginald Dwight to him becoming Elton John and it’s the most musical theater scene in the movie with a performance of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” I was happy to see “Rocketman” use some musical scenes and not simply go for the by the numbers biopic method. I felt like the movie really knew Elton John’s music and did it a great service throughout in every single performance – though if you’re wanting this film to be a perfect timeline of his career it’s not going to be. It’s trying to entertain and tell a story more so than being completely accurate.
It isn’t long after that Elton John develops the most important relationship he’s likely ever had, especially when it comes to his professional life when he’s matched up with lyricist Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell. Taupin is essentially the only one who isn’t trying to use or abuse Elton in any fashion. Their friendship and songwriting partnership has lasted more than half a century and continues to this day.
Going into “Rocketman” I had never seen a Taron Egerton movie. The 29-year old British actor’s biggest roles previously have been in the successful British spy ‘Kingsman’ movies. I didn’t know what to expect from him going in, but Egerton pretty much inhabits Elton John. It seems certain now it’s a role that was meant to go to him.
Egerton is able to play Elton John’s flamboyance and arrogance as a multi-million dollar making performer, while also capturing the immature boyishness of a man who’s never truly been loved and has suffered emotionally and maturity-wise as a result.
Elton’s parents, played in the film by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh, aren’t the only villains of “Rocketman.” Perhaps the biggest villain in the film is that of John Reid (played by Richard Madden), Elton John’s lover and manager, who basically chews him up and spits him out while caring more about the profit Elton can make for him than his own well-being.
Drugs are also a huge villain in the film as Elton falls into the trappings that so many rock stars before and after him suffered through. The drugs must’ve been a coping mechanism for never really being loved by his family and Reid and a way to get through the letdown of such things while simultaneously becoming beloved, but not really known (after all these are Taupin’s words and not his), by the record and concert ticket buying masses.
Before going to the cinema to see “Rocketman” I had seen a headline on Slate that read: “Rocketman Makes Elton John Look Like a Jerk,” which I didn’t bother reading. But, after viewing the film I have to wonder what the hell that headline and article and writer were thinking. Yes, Elton John does jerkish things and has jerkish moments in the film, but he’s a bruised and battered soul who’s been knocked down so much in his life that selling millions of copies of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road doesn’t just cure. Anyone who comes out of the film not feeling sympathetic for him was watching a different movie that I was.
“Rocketman” is one of the better music biopics that I’ve ever seen, right up there with films like “Walk The Line” and “Ray,” as recent examples of good to great biopics. If you’re a fan of Elton John’s music this is a must-watch and even if you’re not or you’re not yet it’s a good movie all-around that’s worth spending two hours with.