Years of anticipation, excitement and yes, some pessimism, all accompanied me to the theater last night to catch an advance screening of Rocketman. Director Dexter Fletcher’s long in development rock biopic and proclaimed “true fantasy” about the first half of Elton John’s career has arrived, and with it the answers to questions about how the film handles the musician’s sexuality and how the finished product would differ from that other recent music biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody.
The answer to the latter question is provided within the first 30 seconds. We see middle aged Elton (Taron Egerton) walking down a hallway in an orange jumpsuit, complete with wings and horns. He could be walking down the halls of a studio or an arena, but we soon realize he is in rehab. As he introduces himself to the other addicts in the circle and begins sharing his story, we realize he is speaking the words to “The Bitch Is Back.” A full musical number ensues in which present Elton flashes back to meet his child self; young Reginald Kenneth Dwight (Matthew Illesley).
Rocketman put my concerns to rest immediately. It may share a few music biopic cliches with Bohemian Rhapsody, but this is no Bohemian Rhapsody. Throughout two hours that fly by, Fletcher and his team never stop being inventive with the music and the story of the man behind it. The result is gorgeous, energetic and surreal. The visuals are matched by a solid cast. Egerton becomes Elton brilliantly, and Jamie Bell is perfect as the Rocketman’s loyal lyricist Bernie Taupin. Richard Madden (as producer John Reid) and Bryce Dallas Howard (as Elton’s mother, Sheila) contribute memorable turns as a few of the reasons Elton turns to drugs, booze and spending as coping mechanisms.
I criticized Bohemian Rhapsody for it’s generous use of artistic license. Fletcher, who took over that project after Bryan Singer was fired, takes liberties of his own here. We see characters performing songs decades before they were written. When Egerton’s Elton is in rehab, his hair isn’t gray like the real Elton’s was in the late 80s. Many interesting facts are left out to keep the story focused on the key players in Elton’s world. These choices are all sufficiently justified by how Fletcher structures the story.
Bohemian Rhapsody presented itself as a straightforward biopic and was mostly focused on recording sessions, record deals, tours and dealing with the press. To choose those areas as the focal point and then only be accurate about half the time (if even) made for a rather pointless experience, unless you’re a huge fan of watching Rami Malek lip sync. Here, on a project of his own from start to finish, Fletcher presents something less than traditional. By fully filming and promoting this story as a true fantasy, it’s less bothersome that we are presented with a world where Elton and Bernie had finished writing “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” before “Your Song” had even been released as a single.
This is not primarily a story about an artist or a band’s impact on the industry. Fletcher is wisely more concerned with life outside the recording studio, and often the personal developments before a musical sequence make the stage a depressing place to be. The fans are always out there, but Fletcher is strategic about only occasionally letting us escape Elton’s head to hear them cheering. There are triumphant moments though, and a thrilling re-imagining of Elton’s Troubadour performance should have everyone smiling.
How is life offstage depicted, you might ask? Bohemian Rhapsody was rightfully bludgeoned by critics for, aside from a few exchanges of dialogue, not presenting Freddie Mercury as a gay man. Rocketman doesn’t make that mistake. While the much talked about sex scene between Elton and producer John Reid is fairly tame (equally explicit depictions of sex between two straight characters can be found in countless PG-13 films), it is still more than we’ve ever seen in a major studio backed film. There are other brief visual allusions to sexual acts, and discussions about Elton’s sexuality occur frequently and frankly.
Where the film really earns it’s R rating though is in terms of language and drug use. Fletcher doesn’t hold back when showing the singer spiraling out of control even as his popularity reaches it’s peak. Elton may be a producer on the film, but he clearly didn’t want his dark past softened. A standout among the edgier moments is sequence that uses a performance of “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Gonna Be A Long, Long Time)” to depict his suicide attempt shortly before a legendary Dodger Stadium show.
In-between the many musical numbers is when the film occasionally stumbles. I like that Lee Hall’s script focuses so much on the friendship between Elton and Bernie. Many of the scenes with Elton’s parents are effective too. Elsewhere, the dialogue is often pedestrian; workable and believable enough to get us to the next musical number or montage, but nothing memorable. I can’t think of any scenes that rise to the level of bad though. The film is never dull, and thanks to the performances and technical flourishes on display, it is often dazzling.
Fletcher makes the wise decision to conclude with Elton sobering up. I was left knowing there is a lot more to the story, and wanting more, but exited the theater very satisfied with what I saw. The film doesn’t go for total accuracy, and chronology goes out the window from scene one, but everything that happens is grounded in events and struggles that actually occurred. It’s a story told in a manner perfectly matched to its subject. Yet the film cuts off before the creation of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, before he met and later married David Furnish and before the massive success of The Lion King. Though the film provides a sense of closure in his personal and professional relationship with John Reid, turbulent developments between the two continued throughout the 1990s. I understand and can appreciate the reasons why Fletcher and Hall compress these events. That said, if the film does well, enough material certainly exists for a sequel. Given the quality of Rocketman, I’ll happily attend an advanced screening when Fletcher and Egerton re-unite for Made in England.
Elton John has always been present in my life. I mean, I am a child of the early 90s. It was hard to avoid him. But, any of you who’ve met my husband know that a simple liking or passive listening to the music messiah Elton is not to be tolerated. Elton John’s music has become a big part of my life since meeting Nathan. Any time he is within arm’s reach of a turntable, Elton John is playing. So, as you can imagine, I became a dedicated fan quickly. And that is not a complaint. Seeing my husband’s passion for his music has only made me love it more. As you can imagine after reading this, the anticipation for Rocketman has been festering since we first heard of its inception. We certainly were not disappointed by the experience.
We were lucky enough to get tickets to an early screening at a theater two hours away. Living in the middle of nowhere is fun. You should give it a try. Thankfully, it was our anniversary weekend and we were in a treat yo’ self kind of mood. Before I get into the meat of this review, let me just start out by expressing my absolute gratitude to Marcus Theaters for only showing two trailers before their films. Granted, they were the two worst trailers I have ever seen, but I won’t hold that against them. If only all theaters (cough cough AMC) would adopt this practice.
Ok let’s get to it. This film was spectacular. There is no other way to say it. Don’t get me wrong, I had a few issues with it. But, considering my fear that it was going to be a hot mess, I could not have been more pleased with the experience. And that’s what this film is: an EXPERIENCE. If you are going into this film looking for a solid story line, a totally linear examination of Elton John’s life, or a believable tale of addiction and recovery, this film probably is not for you. You definitely have to be able to suspend reality for two hours and immerse yourself in the world that Dexter Fletcher creates for us. And what a world it is.
The story of Elton John’s life is told through a therapy session in rehab. We flash back to experiences in his life. We learn about his childhood, how he achieved fame, and his ungraceful way of dealing with it all. While this is very much a film about Elton John the musician, you never lose sight of the personal struggles he is experiencing. They are up front and in your face. You can literally feel the struggle of him coming to terms with his sexuality and his subsequent relationships and his struggle with addiction.
One of my worries when I first heard about this production was the way that his music would be used. Again though, my worries were totally unnecessary. As Nathan stated, there are definitely some inaccuracies in terms of when the songs are used. However, each of the songs fits perfectly with their adjacent scenes.
This leads me to Taron Egerton’s performance. I was absolutely blown away by his voice and acting in this film. If he is not Oscar nominated, I will be shocked. I would also like to think that Taron had to spend excruciating afternoons in a small room with Elton learning how to throw the perfect tantrum. His performance was raw, real, and most of all, believable in a way that I didn’t think was possible.
The musical performances in this film also did not disappoint. There are a few scenes where Elton performs for audiences of varying size. Those aren’t the most impressive ones though. There are several instances where mid-scene, Elton, or supporting characters for that matter, break into song and dance. I am not the biggest fan of film musicals. The great La La Land disappointment of 2016 anyone? However, the level of fantasy in this story really allows this type of performance to work.
My biggest issue with the film isn’t even necessarily a complaint, but deals with the accessibility of this story for viewers who may not be as knowledgeable about Elton John’s life and career. This film was definitely made for people who are familiar with Elton’s story and can fill in some of the details. You can follow the story just fine if you don’t know much about him, but the music sequences sometimes jump jarringly from one event to another, so having some background info can enhance the experience.
The experience of this film outweighs anything negative I have to say. Upon reflection, there were a few things that bothered me. Honestly though, for any film nerd, this is going to be something you will love. The technical aspects are amazing. The musical performances will leave you never wanting it to end. While this may not be an exact retelling of Elton John’s life and career, you definitely get the sense of who he is as a person and a musician, and you gain a much more insight into the struggles he has gone through. You will definitely want to rocket to the theater to see this one. See what I did there? You’ll be happy to have seen this movie too.