Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman opens with a shot of a costumed Elton John (Taron Egerton) walking down a corridor. Whether intentionally or not, the scene suggests the start of Bohemian Rhapsody, as Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) strides from an arena’s backstage to perform at Live Aid, which that movie returns to at the end of the Queen biopic (interestingly, Fletcher completed the excellent Bohemian Rhapsody film after Bryan Singer was fired).
However, in Rocketman, instead of advancing towards a stage to play, as the film begins Elton enters what we learn later on is a group therapy session in a rehabilitation center that reappears in recurring scenes. Indeed, the pianist has actually walked out of a concert venue in order to commit himself to treatment.
What the musician is being treated for is largely the subject matter of this biography of the composer known for hits such as “Daniel,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Crocodile Rock,” and but of course “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Been a Long Long Time).” Elton’s younger self, born Reggie Dwight (and played by Matthew Illesley and then, as he ages, Kit Connor), grows up in what appears onscreen to be a middle class British household in London.
Reggie is not so much an abused child as he is neglected, by his emotionally distant and sometimes absentee biological father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), who served in the Royal Air Force, and his self-absorbed mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard). Despite being a jazz aficionado, when Stanley reappears in little Reggie’s life he forbids his Count Basie-loving son from touching and playing his collection of vinyl albums.
Deprived of affection and attention from his family, Reggie turns to music for solace, and like a 20th century Mozart, is a child prodigy with an incredible ear and knack for playing piano. Encouraged by his grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) Reggie studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music, although enthralled by Elvis, he prefers the emerging new art form of rock ’n’ roll to classical music.
Rocketman follows the tried and true formula of many biographies of artists, following its protagonist as he struggles to find his voice and vision on the path to success. We see Reggie’s trials and tribulations as he rises from being a pianist in pubs to touring as a backup musician for visiting African American talents, including the Isley Brothers and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. While pondering how to become a rock star, one of the Black performers advises Reggie to kill the person he was born as in order to become the person he was meant to and wants to be.
Taking the advice to heart, Reggie adopts “Elton” as his first name. Later, when gruff record executive Dick James (Brit Stephen Graham) presses him on what his last name is, the piano player glimpses a photo of the Beatles and in homage to Lennon, says “John.” When the composer encounters lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) they become fast friends and a formidable musical team, with Elton uncannily setting Bernie’s words to music. The duo wrote songs for Brit pop stars such as Lulu (her biggest hit was “To Sir with Love” by Don Black and Mark London, which was the theme song of the 1967 movie of the same name starring Sidney Poitier), and by 1969 Elton recorded singles and an album.
Rocketman can be taken to task for omitting those early discs and jump cutting to Elton’s live performances at the Troubadour, the fabled West Hollywood nightclub, which propelled the Englishman to fame in the U.S.A., back in the U.K. and around the world. However, this point is a mere quibble: In a mere two hours and one minute, a motion picture biography can’t cover everything and life stories — particularly lives as event-filled as a rock superstar’s — must be telescoped in order to be told onscreen in a succinct, coherent manner.
In any case, as previously alluded to, Rocketman treads the well-worn road of dramatizing the performer’s rise from rags to riches — and on to an existence filled with the excesses of drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll. The audience goes from rooting for the suffering artist as he moves from underdog to feeling sorry for or recoiling from the star and his self-destructive behavior as he bungles fame and fortune. For instance, Bohemian Rhapsody tracks this trope — but stylistically, Rocketman departs from the familiar storyline with imaginative formal flourishes.
The film injects fantasy into its plot points, including some sensational special effects that creatively visualize Elton’s dazzling performances. In one optically opulent exquisite concert sequence, as Elton tickles the ivories he levitates — as does his entire audience of enthusiastic listeners. Another magical scene graphically expresses Rocketman’s title via special FX.
With these techniques, Rocketman is more like Julie Taymor’s 2007, Beatles-inspired Across the Universe than Bohemian Rhapsody. In the latter, the songs are only heard when the musicians record them in a studio or perform them onstage, but in addition to Egerton’s regaling crowds at concerts while in character (and outlandish costume), Rocketman includes several numbers wherein the dramatis personae sing to one another and the music serves to advance the plot and/or character development. In this sense, although it does feature a surreal pictorial panache too, Rocketman also touches on elements of traditional musicals, such as South Pacific, West Side Story and The Sound of Music.
Freddie Mercury may come to grips with his over-the-top celebrity and resulting behavior, but unlike Queen’s front man, Rocketman goes deeper than a band intervention and, as previously mentioned, depicts Elton entering a rehab center where he’s treated for substance abuse. But more importantly, during group therapy Elton grapples with his inner demons, stemming from the rejection and pain his parents inflicted upon him during his childhood. In a poignant, beautiful scene via movie magic, Elton comes face to face with himself as a child and makes peace with the little boy he’d tried to “kill” by inventing his outrageous, overcompensating persona to transcend his strict, repressive upbringing full of rules.
To its credit, Rocketman forthrightly portrays Elton’s homosexuality. His contentious affair with music manager John Reid (Scotsman Richard Madden, who played Robb Stark in HBO’s Game of Thrones and won a Golden Globe in 2019 for the BBC’s TV crime series Bodyguard, which is distributed on Netflix) — who also managed Queen (Aidan Gillen portrayed Reid in Bohemian Rhapsody), is a significant plot point. Albeit briefly, after she sincerely expresses empathy for the musician and his artistry at a recording session, Rocketman depicts Elton’s short-lived marriage to Renate (Celinda Schoenmaker). But like a relationship with his landlady Arabella (Ophelia Lovibond), Elton’s onscreen interactions with females are never shown being consummated and this film stays firm in asserting that Elton is gay — not straight, bisexual, et al.
It is the insight provided by therapy, and not finding the “right” woman and pursuing a heterosexual lifestyle, that rescues Elton from self-destructiveness and even suicidal impulses.
In the United States Rocketman’s thespians aren’t likely to be household names for the average moviegoer who possess the star power to lure popcorn-munchers to multiplexes. The cast and crew are predominantly British, with most of the actors not being very well known to American audiences. Perhaps the most familiar thesp to Yankee ticket buyers is Jamie Bell, who in his 2000 screen debut portrayed the title character in Billy Elliot, although here, playing Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin, the 33-year-old Englishman is an adult, and no longer that working class lad yearning to become a dancer.
American actress Bryce Dallas Howard who plays Elton’s mother Sheila, will also be recognizable to U.S. theatergoers as Claire Dearing in the Jurassic World film franchise. London-born Gemma Jones, who portrays Elton’s sympathetic grandmother Ivy, has one of those faces that seems familiar, although most fans would be hard-pressed to name this actress who has appeared in the Harry Potter and Bridget Jones film franchises and as Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson’s mother, Mrs. Dashwood, in Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
29-year-old Egerton, who co-starred in the Kingsman secret service film franchise and the fact-based 2015 Olympics picture Eddie the Eagle helmed by Fletcher, is of English and Welsh background. According to Paramount Pictures’ press material, Egerton sings John’s songs as heard during Rocketman and on its soundtrack album.
His acting and singing are sensational, and like Malek as Freddie Mercury, Egerton seems Oscar-bound. Rocketman itself is likely to receive a number of Academy Award nominations, including in the special effects and costuming categories. Indeed, costume designer Julian Day’s outfits almost become an onscreen character and play an essential part in the movie.
Screenwriter Lee Hall has substantial writing credits under his belt, including 2000’s Billy Elliot, 2011’s War Horse (directed by Steven Spielberg), 2017’s Victoria & Abdul and the upcoming screen version of Cats based on the poetry of that other Eliot — T.S. In 2005, Elton composed the music for the musical stage version of Billy Elliot.
He is also one of Rocketman’s executive producers. Of course, by having a talent him (or herself), a relative or close friend attached to a project can bring insight and intimacy to a story, providing truths that outsiders might otherwise not know about. However, this input can also ensure that storytelling is “authorized” and not necessarily fair, balanced and accurate.
To be sure, Elton is depicted onscreen with warts and all, but it’s unlikely that anything would be included in this feature that exec producer Elton objected to. Indeed, Rocketman –– which dramatizes the pianist’s life through his undergoing rehab around 1990 — concludes with one of those “whatever became of” movie montages that paints a very rosy picture of Elton’s post-rehab years, as a philanthropist who has raised more than $450 million to combat AIDS, a happy family life with a husband and raising sons, etc., that seems like it got Elton’s seal of approval.
Nevertheless, Rocketman enthusiastically gets this critic’s seal of approval. It’s a must-see for Elton John fans and with its ingenious fantasy sequences and riveting story, a great ride for general audiences. The music alone makes this biopic about one of the greatest rockers of all time worth seeing (and hearing). Rocketman blasts off in theaters across America on May 31.
A longtime contributor to Rock Cellar Magazine, L.A.-based film historian and critic Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/).