Movie review: 'Rocketman'

June 24, 2019

AFTER ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ about Freddie Mercury, now comes “Rocketman” about another British music icon, Elton John whose real name is Reginald Kenneth Dwight. He has the distinction of having seven consecutive number one albums in the U.S. charts and his song, “Candle in the Wind” in 1997, rewritten as a tribute to Princess Diana, sold 33 million copies worldwide (but it’s not in the movie). His first hit single was “Your Song” in 1970 from his self titled album. He also has great success in musical films and theatre, composing for “The Lion King”, “Aida” and “Billy Elliot the Musical”.

The film starts with Elton (Taron Egerton) barging into a therapy group wearing an outlandish costume with horns and wings, then proclaiming that he’s an alcoholic and also a drug addict, a sex addict, bulimic and also addicted to shopping. His story is then told mainly in flashbacks while he is in the rehab clinic in the mid-80s looking back at his life.

The film shows 30 years in the life of its subject, dwelling on its high points (like his being accepted as a piano prodigy at the  Royal Academy of Music) as well as its low ones, while we hear about 20 of his hit songs culled mostly from the 70s. It tells about his sad relationship with his parents, particularly with his distant dad, Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and also his uncaring mom, Shiela (Bryce Dallas Howard of “Jurassic World”, who got fat for this part and sports a credible British accent). It’s only his grandmother who really cared for him and recognized his talent early on. His later attempt to reconnect with his dad when he’s already a big star is even more heartbreaking.

The film also chronicles his durable friendship with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) with whom he has collaborated in more than 30 albums; his failed relationship with his exploitative manager-lover John Reid (Richard Madden, the Prince in “Cinderella” and Rob Stark in “GOT”), his short-lived marriage to a woman named Renate and his hellish bout with drugs and alcohol. The gay bed scene is not sanitized but treated rather tastefully. The movie ends when Elton gets out of  rehab and the epilogue says he has become clean and sober since then. He is now 72 years old and has found a partner in David Furnish and they have two adopted kids.

As a film biography, you’d really be amazed at how Elton became such a big success as a hitmaker when you consider the odds and obstacles that he went through in his life.  He got the name Elton John from a member of the band he first formed, Bluesology, saxophonist Elton Dean and John is from John Lennon of The Beatles. He later formed his own recording firm, The Rocket Record Company, and he became such a big hit in America with his American Soul Tour in 1969 starting at the Troubador in L.A.  In 1972, he had his name legally changed to Elton Hercules John.

The film is directed by Dexter Fletcher, who finished “Bohemian Rhapsody” after Bryan Singer had a falling out with its producers, 20th Century Fox. He now takes a different path from “Bohemian Rhapsody”. “Rocketman” is not the usual linear biopic with musical numbers like “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Instead, he comes up with a very stylized film bio, using the musical sequences as chances for flights of imagination and to emphasize high points in the life and career of its subject. So don’t be surprised that when the song “Crocodile Rock” is performed, John and his audience are shown levitating from the floor as they’re swept along by the song. The song “Rocketman” is used in that sequence where he attempts to commit suicide.

Some songs are also utilized to show the passage of time, like in “Pinball Wizard”, with John starting to sing them at an early stage of his life then completing in a later stage of his life to show transitions. As such, those who are familiar with his hit songs, especially in the 70s, will be the ones to enjoy and appreciate the movie more. The songs in “Bohemian Rhapsody” are definitely far more familiar to local audiences than the songs here in “Rocketman”.

If Rami Malek won the Oscar as Freddie M, we have no doubt that Taron Egerton (best known for the “Kingsman” action flicks) will also be nominated as the flashy entertainer that Elton John is. Whether he’d win or not will defend on who his rivals will be and it’s just the middle of the year so that would be very difficult to predict. His edge is that he uses his own voice in singing Elton’s songs, unlike Rami who just lipsynched the songs of Freddie. Taron inhabits the role and captures not only the colorful flamboyant scenes of Elton but also his quieter dramatic moments. His rendition of the last song, “I’m Still Standing” is a truly impressive knockout. We remember him also singing it as the gorilla, Johnny, in the animated film, “Sing”. We only hear the real voice of Elton John in the movie during the original final song, “I’m Gonna Love Me Again”, which he sings as a duet with Taron in the end credits.