A man wearing a demon’s horns and angel’s wings strides down an institutional hallway and tells a therapy group that he’s addicted to alcohol, cocaine, sex and shopping and suffers from bulimia. From this seat he will recount his 1960’s childhood as piano prodigy Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley), the son of an emotionally cold father and self absorbed mother, through the meteoric rise that brought him fame and fortune but not happiness. Thirty years of Elton John’s (Taron Egerton, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”) life are reflected through a fantastical musical lens in “Rocketman.”
Who would have thought the connections among Elton John’s love of “Billy Elliot,” “Kingsman” director Matthew Vaughn’s knowledge of Taron Egerton’s singing ability and a movie about “Eddie the Eagle” would have coalesced into such a brilliant and bold interpretation of Elton John’s rise to fame? As written by “Billy Elliot’s” Lee Hall and directed by “Eddie the Eagle’s” Dexter Fletcher (which starred Egerton, just as Jamie Bell, who plays Bernie Taupin, starred in “Billy Elliot”), “Rocketman” uses John and Taupin’s songs to dramatize various important stages of his life, usually ending in a completely different time and space where they begin. The effect is dazzling, a magic carpet ride of sights and sounds (and music and costumes) that delivers a heady rush of entertainment with an emotional undertow. Egerton and Fletcher (who also received credit for “Bohemian Rhapsody” after Bryan Singer’s firing) are about to see their respective stocks rise dramatically.
The young boy caught between his parents’ acrimonious relationship was encouraged by his maternal grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones), who recognized the child’s talent. The man in the oversized glasses and orange, red and yellow costume joins his younger incarnation in his desaturated neighborhood to ‘The Bitch Is Back,’ a reference here to mother Sheila Farebrother (an unrecognizable and surprisingly effective Bryce Dallas Howard). The child who astonishes a Royal Academy of Music instructor by recreating her playing upon one hearing tries to connect to his dad Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) though the man’s love of music, but is instead admonished for touching his record collection (his later attempt to reconnect in adulthood is even harsher).
Sheila trades Stanley in for Fred (Tom Bennett) and the foursome seem happier at a pub where Ivy’s request of her grandson at the piano turns into a raucous performance of ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ that wends its way to an outdoor amusement park before landing on a job offer, backing up 1969’s American Soul Tour. It is here Elton first recognizes his sexual orientation, but it is not until he meets his manager of 28 years, sexy Scotsman John Reid (Richard Madden), that he loses his virginity (which, unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is depicted here in a tasteful, if exuberant, sex scene).
That happens after Elton gets up the gumption to reply to an NME ad for a writing job at Liberty Records and is handed an unopened packet of lyrics by Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) in Dick James’s (Stephen Graham) office. Happenstance introduced him to lifelong friend and eternal rock Bernie Taupin. The two got on like wildfire, even if Bernie wasn’t interested romantically, and watching Jamie Bell’s face as Elton just magically finds the music to ‘Your Song’ is one of the movie’s highlights. That is the song which sees James book Elton into L.A.’s The Troubadour, bringing on sickening stage fright, smashing success and a party at Mama Cass’s where Reid pushes the first of many vices in the guise of a glass of champagne. (The L.A. sequence brings a levitating ‘Crocodile Rock,’ Elton’s first foray into his outré wardrobe, and the romanticism of ‘Tiny Dancer.’)
The musical numbers become more and more fantastical, ‘Honky Cat’ underlining Reid’s corruption of John with everything money can buy, ‘Bennie and the Jets’ disco’s sex and drugs and ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, sung by Bell, Taupin’s attempt to pull Elton from the brink. ‘Rocket Man’ begins with a watery suicide attempt that reunites Elton with his younger self before transporting him from a gurney to Dodgers Stadium. Fletcher’s audacious transitional staging is well met by costume designer Julian Day (“Bohemian Rhapsody”), whose feathers, sequins and outsized glasses obscure more and more of a man who’s losing himself.
Among Egerton’s screen credits is the animated “Sing’s” gorilla Johnny, who just happens to sing ‘I’m Still Standing,’ which Egerton reprises here. It may sound clichéd to say someone was born to play a role, but honestly, Egerton just lives and breathes Elton, his joy in performing infectious, his yearning for love touching, his agony over Reid’s rejection intensely painful, his ability to jump among various emotions in ingeniously conceived, multi-part musical numbers impressive as hell. Egerton’s voice may not be as idiosyncratic as John’s, but there is no mistaking who he is supposed to be (the real Elton encouraged him to make the music his own rather than going for mere mimicry). Support is no slouch either with Bell, also in fine singing voice, expressing true devotion and the euphoria of artistic creation. Madden, currently in the conversation to succeed Daniel Craig as the next Bond, is seductive yet elusive before turning ice cold and all business. The film also stars Tate Donovan as The Troubadour’s enthusiastic Doug Weston and Celinde Schoenmaker as Elton’s kind yet short-lived bride Renate.
“Rocketman” isn’t a conventional biopic nor a conventional musical. Those looking to nitpick things like musical chronology should take a step back and consider the bigger picture because the filmmaking team here have created something truly special. I’ve never been an Elton John fan but this film has me reconsidering (at least his earlier years - the new original song, ‘(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,’ sung over closing credits by John and Egerton, left me cold). “Bohemian Rhapsody” featured a great performance within a mediocre film. “Rocketman” is firing on all cylinders.
Robin did not see this film.
Home | Reviews and Ratings Archive | Top 10 | Video | Crew | Article | Links
Reeling has been chosen as a Movie Review Query Engine Top Critic.