Pop stardom is a notoriously fickle thing. For every “legacy” artist out there, there are thousands of one-hit wonders, and hundreds of sort-of famous B listers. One imagines that anyone in the center of the hurricane of New Fame imagines it will last forever. If you find yourself engineering your own biopic in your golden years, congratulations, it did. Which brings us to Reginald Dwight… better known as Elton John.
In the first frames of Rocketman, Elton John (Taron Egerton) strolls into focus, cheekily dressed as a horned devil to confront his own demons in a therapy session framing device. Despite initial reservations, this navel-gazing is remarkably unannoying as framing devices go, surely because of the inspired visual winking of that devil suit, and the fact that we return to the therapy so infrequently. Elton’s got a show to put on!
The famous 1974 B-side “The Bitch is Back” is adorably placed right up front in the movie and confirms, delightfully, that this is a full fledged musical and not a standard and-then-this-happened-and-that-happened musical biography. In fact, the movie thankfully cares not a whit about being a traditional biopic, and songs from Elton’s whole catalogue come fast and furious, and not remotely in their order of creation.
“The Bitch is Back” is performed by both Taron Egerton (20 and 30something Elton) and Matthew Illesly (Elton’s child prodigy self Reginald Dwight). To the piano man‘s immense credit, the song feels raucously earned despite literally no build-up. It’s as simple as this — Elton John hasn’t done something this fabulous in ages.
Not that we should give Elton John all the credit.
Dexter Fletcher, previously something of a journeyman director who was famously hired to resuscitate Bohemian Rhapsody late into its troubled production, suddenly announces himself as an assured visualist. And he commands a great team. The screenplay by Lee Hall (War Horse, Billy Elliott) is smart and doesn’t get bogged down in most of the usual biopic traps (apart from the over-familiarity of addiction dramas), nimbly leaping from one song to another.
The cinematography by George Richmond (The Kingsman) is bold with its lighting and color choices. The production design by Marcus Rowland (Baby Driver) is attuned to the loud but earthy 1970s and Elton’s excess. The costumes by Julian Day (Bohemian Rhapsody, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), even when they aren’t directly recreating Elton’s famously extravagant wardrobe, are blessed with touches of the fantastical. Here’s one blink-and-you’ll-miss it example: In one musical sequence we see little Reggie Dwight conducting an imaginary choir while wearing a pair of pajamas and if you look closely at the pajama top it has a little bowtie on it made of the exact same fabric!
Jamie Bell is typically wonderful as Elton’s instantly close friend and longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (when is Hollywood going to realize that Jamie Bell is a star and shouldn’t always be playing second fiddle?). But, more often than not the supporting cast leans into broad caricature. Still nobody is there for the supporting players…
Biopics of famous people live and die on the star turn at center. Taron Egerton carries the picture with both style and depth, proving himself a dazzling and confident showman as an actor. This is no generic impression but a fully realized character. His Elton is a raw-nerve tangle of pain, humor, confusion, sexual longing (no straight-washing this time- there’s even an enthusiastically gay sex scene), idiosyncratic beats, creative impulsives, and ugly mood swings.
And then of course there are the hit songs. Though Egerton’s falsetto might not be as strong as Elton’s, his singing voice is resonant with emotion and storytelling, and thus perfect for John & Taupin’s early pop masterpieces, with their unusually rich lyrics and full melodic journeys. Egerton could be a movie musical star if he chose to be (if only Hollywood made more of them). He’s blessed with the ability to act through singing, rather than just pausing the performance to sing.
In one flamboyant moment in Rocketman, the title becomes literal, with a fire erupting under Elton John’s feet, blasting him off into the night sky to become his own fireworks display. This is the point we’re at in this review when the gushing has become its own performance; the movie isn’t perfect, you see, but we were in heaven.. So here’s a whorish pullquote. Rocketman is everything a big screen biopic should be! It’s reflective of the character and temperament of its subject (something Bohemian Rhapsody failed miserably at last year, selling such a heteronormative version of “Freddie Mercury”), it’s entertaining whether you’re a die hard loyalist or a casual fan of the subject, and its crafted with delicious care by a top notch team.
If you missed it this opening weekend, run to see it first chance you get on the biggest screen near you. It deserves to fill your eyes, and not just with tears. Be warned that the movie is a tearjerker. Rocketman risks going very earnest and sentimental but the finale is emotionally earned even if it’s awfully literal about the ‘inner child’ business of self-care. Still, it’s a grand entertainment despite the traditional rise to fame – get messed up on drugs narrative.
In one of the movie’s signature visual beats — chances are you’ve seen this bit in the trailer — Elton’s feet levitate off the ground at his legendary star-making concert at the Troubadour in LA, while his fingers keep pounding on the piano. What the trailers don’t show you is that the audience floats up, too — a small, but brilliant touch. I didn’t literally levitate out of my seat but it took hours to come back down.
Elton has a new song over the end credits called “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”, which is a duet with Taron Egerton. It is, in its own way, a fine bookend to the movie’s first exceptional musical number “I Want Love” (Elton’s brilliant 2001 ballad) which is sung by the entire ensemble. They begin the song together in one room, but sing their own lines while walking away from each other. The new song is entirely redundant given the narcissism of the film that precedes it. But, no matter. Elton wants your love and with Rocketman in theaters he’ll surely be basking in mass adoration again.