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The title of Rocketman is appropriate in that this boldly unconventional portrait of Elton John — charting the parallel tracks of his meteoric rise to superstardom and his simultaneous descent into an abyss of loneliness and addiction — has a spectacular launch, all engines blazing. It’s mid-flight that narrative shortcomings start to kick in, with a succession of surreally stylized musical fantasy sequences that are fabulously entertaining but too seldom allow for the kind of substantial dramatic connective tissue that would invite real emotional involvement with the protagonist. It’s largely to the credit of star Taron Egerton, who leans fearlessly into the role’s wild excesses, that the movie remains airborne.
The big test for any biopic of a music legend now will be how it measures up to the massive global success of Bohemian Rhapsody, and certainly the hits of John are no less enduring and beloved than those of Freddie Mercury and Queen — in fact arguably more so. On that score alone, Paramount should be able to count on a ready-made audience of longtime fans. Younger audiences raised on the Baz Luhrmann school of montage-driven spectacle should also get a kick out of the movie’s orgy of glitter, glory and grit, not to mention costumer Julian Day’s dazzling parade of flamboyant glam-rock stage couture.
RELEASE DATE May 31, 2019
There’s a neat symmetry in the fact that director Dexter Fletcher, who stepped in to rescue Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer’s erratic behavior risked derailing it, is at the helm of Rocketman, his full ownership here unleashing a far more impressionistic vision of rock ‘n’ roll myth-making.
The screenplay is by Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot and previously collaborated with composer John on the stage musical adaptation of that 2000 film, about another Brit lad escaping from the reality of an unhappy home life through the discovery of performance, in that case dance. And Jamie Bell, who played that title character, provides lovely support here as John’s canonical songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, whose friendship is depicted as the star’s most sustaining relationship in those turbulent years.
But the driving force of the film is Egerton in a fully committed performance that ranges from exuberant stage showmanship through maudlin seediness and private misery, then back up again with the raw vulnerability and hard self-examination of someone stepping away from the precipice to take responsibility for his near flameout. The fact that Egerton does his own singing with such confidence adds a whole other layer to the characterization, appropriating the style of John without ever veering into impersonation. And in this age of flawlessly gym-toned young movie stars, the slight hint of chubbiness he’s acquired for the role is adorable.
Hall’s framing device works surprisingly well. The movie begins with a gorgeous slow instrumental version of the title song, as Elton bursts through a doorway haloed in celestial light and decked out in sequins and feathers as a fiery red-winged devil. He takes his seat in that incongruous getup among a therapy group at a posh rehab facility, where he proceeds to list his many addictions, from drugs and alcohol to sex and shopping, also dropping in issues with bulimia and anger management.
But Fletcher doesn’t linger over this confessional opening. Instead, he dives head-first into fantasy as the adult Elton follows his childhood self (Matthew Illesley) back in time to suburban Middlesex in the 1950s, where a full-scale production number explodes to the unexpected choice of “The Bitch Is Back.” The vivid red and orange stage costume pops against desaturated tones that evoke the faded photographs of memory, suggesting that even then, the young Reginald Dwight, as he was named at birth, was a freak hungering for release.
A miscast Bryce Dallas Howard plays Reggie’s self-absorbed mother Sheila as an arch caricature, a common woman with glamorous aspirations, soured by a bad marriage to a cold Royal Air Force man incapable of love (Steven Mackintosh), at least where she and Reggie are concerned. The only warmth the boy receives is from his Nan (Gemma Jones), who accompanies him to the Royal Academy of Music when a piano teacher recognizes his prodigious natural talent.
While one or two song choices are a tad obvious, like “I Want Love,” sung by the various family members, there’s a brisk efficiency to the introductory action. Reggie’s father leaves without even a goodbye, laying the foundation for lingering feelings of rejection, and neither parent comes out of this with much to redeem them. The evolution from middle childhood (where Reggie is played by Kit Connor with an Elvis quiff) to early adulthood, when Egerton steps in, is invigoratingly handled. It starts as a local pub performance and morphs into another big dance number, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” depicting those key transitional years as a crazy carnival.
Reggie gets a taste of American soul when he’s hired to play backup for a touring act, and also gets his first gay kiss, courtesy of a black singer. Soon after his fortuitous meeting with Taupin and his adoption of a new name, Elton is casually outed, and the heterosexual Bernie’s nonchalant acceptance of the news helps make that exposure more of a liberation than a trauma. Though it doesn’t go over so well with Elton’s girlfriend. Only later, when he comes out to Sheila over the phone, does he feel a sting as she predicts a lonely life of never knowing what it’s like to be loved “properly.”
One of the movie’s most enjoyable chapters is the singer’s legendary 1970 American debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, where the 23-year-old Elton overcomes stage-fright fed by an audience of music luminaries — Neil Diamond, Leon Russell, half of The Beach Boys — to lift the crowd quite literally off their feet with “Crocodile Rock,” his own platform boots leaving the ground while his fingers continue to hammer the piano keys.
At a party afterward at the home of Mama Cass, he croons a delicate “Tiny Dancer” as Bernie wanders off through clouds of reefer smoke to make out in the backyard teepee (ah, the ’70s…) with a new acquaintance. But that night Elton meets John Reid (Richard Madden), a dashing and unapologetically self-serving music manager who sums up the Troubadour show with a mini-review that doubles as a killer seduction line: “There are moments in a rock star’s life that define who he is and how people perceive him as he ascends into the heavens.”
Reid remains elusive for a while thereafter, but resurfaces amusingly in the middle of Elton’s recording session with Kiki Dee on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” He quickly displaces Elton’s early management, Dick James (Stephen Graham) and Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe). They move into a swanky Los Angeles home together as Elton’s fame and record sales soar, though Reid insists that they keep their sexual relationship under wraps for fear of killing Elton’s career.
Hall and Fletcher treat Elton’s stratospheric success almost as a fantasy that’s separate from his personal life, which means Rocketman lacks many of the traditional trappings of a rise-to-fame story, for better or worse. Elton’s way of coping with real life is to keep retreating further away from it, as reflected in his increasingly outrageous stage persona. This is illustrated in a dynamic sequence in which he performs “Pinball Wizard” at a grand piano as cinematographer George Richmond’s camera whirls around him in a dizzying series of Day’s most extravagant wardrobe creations. But the unfulfilled emotional needs that prevent Elton from enjoying his success are not met by Reid, who makes no effort to hide his dalliances with other men.
It’s characteristic of a film that almost invariably chooses a big stylized showpiece over a moment of intimate revelation that Elton’s booze- and drug-fueled suicide attempt during a party at their home takes the form of a plunge to the bottom of the swimming pool, where young Reggie is in astronaut gear singing “Rocket Man” at a toy piano. Even the emergency hospital trip to have his stomach pumped continues as a trippy fantasy, seguing into the barely recovered Elton taking the stage at Dodger Stadium in his iconic spangly baseball uniform. Visually, it’s quite a feast, but on a dramatic level, it too often feels all a bit remote.
That imbalance becomes more problematic as Elton’s isolation is compounded and his addictions grow worse. Some plot points are so perfunctorily touched upon they might as well have been dropped, like his brief marriage to German recording engineer Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker), woven around “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” There’s more feeling in the bumps in his friendship with Bernie, who takes his leave from one of Elton’s pity parties by singing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in a lush orchestral arrangement.
Musically, the movie sticks pretty much to the greatest hits, with some terrific oldies like “Border Song” and “Take Me to the Pilot” the closest thing to deep cuts here. It’s a blast to hear so many indelible songs, even if it would have been nice to have a few more of them sung at length, rather than in truncated excerpts. And Hall’s screenplay spends too little time on the actual making of the music. One notable exception — when Elton sits down at the piano in his mother’s house plonking out the first melodic ideas for the lyrics Bernie has just handed him to “Your Song,” before it bursts into fully formed life — is stirring because the creative process generally is observed here only in passing.
If the final reckoning of Elton’s rehab therapy session could have used more dramatic muscle, it was a shrewd touch to have Bernie be the one whose visit allows him to express his fears while finally summoning the strength to stay clean. And whether Fletcher had a Cannes premiere in mind or not, closing with a recreation of the sublimely cheesy 1983 music video for “I’m Still Standing,” a riot of mullets, Lycra and bad dance moves shot on a Riviera beachfront, was a surefire way to get the festival crowd on their feet in an extended standing ovation.
Audiences when the movie opens May 31 will likely be more mixed, but as a fantasia on the making of Elton John, Rocketman at the very least commits wholeheartedly to its flashy eccentricity, and for many, that will be more than fun enough.
Production companies: Marv Films, Rocket Pictures, Paramount Pictures, New Republic Pictures
Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Steven Mackintosh, Tate Donovan, Charlie Rowe, Matthew Illesley, Kit Connor
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Screenwriter: Lee Hall
Producers: Matthew Vaughn, David Furnish, Adam Bohling, David Reid
Executive producers: Elton John, Claudia Vaughn, Brian Oliver, Steve Hamilton Shaw, Michael Gracey
Director of photography: George Richmond
Production designer: Marcus Rowland
Costume designer: Julian Day
Music: Matthew Margeson
Music producer: Giles Martin
Editor: Chris Dickens
Choreography: Adam Murray
Casting: Reg Poerscout-Edgerton
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Rated R, 121 minutes
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