by Alan Yudman
Elton John’s life is perfect fodder for a movie, and not just because he is famous or an outrageously flamboyant performer. His story is one of soaring highs, monumental lows and redemption. You know, the stuff of good drama. The bold choice made in ROCKETMAN is combining that arc with a catalog of all-time great pop music to tell Elton’s story. So be prepared going in.. this is a musical.
Director Dexter Fletcher, working from a script by Lee Hall, goes for it. There are elaborate choreographed dance routines, bizarre fantasy set pieces and intimate interpretations of the songs of John and Bernie Taupin that are woven in to help tell the story.
The film depicts Reginald Dwight’s loveless childhood. A distant father and a mother who didn’t seem to know how to give love. It’s no wonder Elton John became an addict. It is clear he used pills, cocaine, booze and sex to fill a big hole in his heart. He finally realized what it was to love and be loved after his world came crashing down around him and he got help.
This is Taron Egerton’s movie. He is in just about every scene (except for the young Reggie Dwight). His performance is occasionally over the top, but he is portraying such a flamboyant personality that is mostly works. He also does his own singing and pulls it off. It’s not an impersonation.. more of an interpretation. Whatever it is, it works. It could have been distracting, but after a while you forget that’s not Elton singing. One standout scene is the depiction of “Your Song”. It may be the best moment in the movie.
The other performance worth watching is from Richard Madden as John Reid, the business manager who uses Elton’s neediness as a way to manipulate the star into another loveless relationship. All so Reid can make piles of money. He is loathsome.
Jamie Bell is fine as Bernie Taupin. You get a sense of his relationship with Elton that really seems to be that of two brothers. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Sheila Dwight, Elton’s mother. She gets the point across, but it is a bit uneven. Can’t they find a British actress to play a British woman? Her accent slips on occasion.
Giles Martin was the music producer on the film, an important job in a musical. He does an outstanding job arranging and interpreting the songs to fit the story. My only quibble is they used “Pinball Wizard” to depict one out of control, drug addled, sequence. A more on the nose choice may have been “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, but that’s all about choice. Who am I to tell them how to producer their movie. Another important job in this film is Costume Designer and Julian Day nails Elton’s outrageous costumes. I won’t spoil it but just keep “I’m Still Standing” in the back of your mind. If you watched MTV in the ’80’s you might thank me. Or you might want to slap me. Either way, watch for it.
The one thing this film suffers from is what most movies in this genre suffer from.. it feels rushed. I’ve seen worse examples, and better, but it’s a genre problem they deal with as best they can. I have to believe this is a true depiction of the emotional rollercoaster of Elton’s life since he was an Executive Producer on the film.
There will be inevitable comparisons to BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, RAY or any other biopic about a musician. Those are false equivalencies. ROCKETMAN owes more to a traditional musical like DREAMGIRLS. It should not get lost on anyone how difficult it is to pull off a musical that is also a biopic. Given the degree of difficulty, ROCKETMAN mostly sticks the landing.