Movie Review: Musical/Fantasy/Biography – Rocketman
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Written by Lee Hall
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, and Bryce Dallas Howard
It’s shocking and a bit depressing when an aging boomer like myself suddenly realizes that there are now two (three? Christ!) generations of people who have no idea how big a star Elton John once was. (A fourth may have popped out in the time it took me to write this review). He had seven consecutive number one albums, a big feat before the age of digital downloads and one that only The Beatles had yet bested. He had nine Billboard number one hits, another 18 in the top ten, and yet another 40 or so in the Hot 100. What Elvis was to the ‘50s, The Beatles to the ‘60s, and Michael Jackson to the ‘80s, Elton John was to the ‘70s. There was nobody bigger, nobody flashier, and nobody kitschier in a era famous for its kitsch. For many of us, Elton John helped define the decade.
And there was the music. Together John and lyricist Bernie Taupin created one of the great songbooks of the rock and roll era, a repertoire of such depth and scope to challenge those of the greats: Dylan, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones. They wrote enough great songs to fill a two-hour musical while still omitting many. And that’s exactly what they’ve done. Leave it to Elton John to tell his own life story in an elaborate, Broadway style musical fantasy, replete with more costume changes than a Cher concert and a bouncy pop opera appeal that recalls works from the period like Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy, both made into films, with the latter featuring John himself in an iconic performance of “Pinball Wizard.” And credit the endless invention of writer Lee Hall (Billy Eliot) and director Dexter Fletcher for presenting it all in grandly entertaining and ultimately moving fashion.
This conceit, of telling the story of John’s life as a musical, is the kind of bravura that ‘70s rock stars specialized in and it’s what sets Rocketman apart from routine musical biopics like last years’ Bohemian Rhapsody, the blockbuster Oscar winning Queen biopic. They tell virtually the same story: a young gay musical genius, on shaky terms with his family, especially his father, ascends to rock and roll superstardom but soon descends into a self-destructive world of drug fueled decadence, vanity, random gay sex, and bad relationships. Yet the two films are radically different. Rhapsody, for all its popularity, was not an especially good movie. Rocketman comes damn close to being a great one. Together, they form a textbook example of what to do and what not to do with this kind of story. Rhapsody was lazy, ingenuine, and utterly routine, enthusiastically embracing shamelessly road-worn clichés and choosing to alter the truth for no apparent reason other than to demonize its subject for easy drama. Just imagine the movie Mercury, no slouch when it came to flamboyance, would have given us if he were alive to tell his own story. Rocketman, conversely, is outrageous from the start.
Even before the film begins, it’s defying convention as we hear the quiet strains of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” playing over the various production company credit sequences, enough already to leave a nostalgic lump in my throat. As the letters of the title, in a font reminiscent of a disco ball, are finally displayed, the image of John suddenly shatters through them. Resembling some kind of orange clad devil-chicken, the feather and horn adorned John (Taron Egerton) bursts down a long hallway, crashing open the doors of an AA meeting, where he rudely interrupts to confess his own sins and tell the story of his rise and fall. Typical of a self-absorbed addict, John has made the meeting, like the movie, about himself.
The movie Elton begins his grand opus with a clever segue back to his youth in the middle-class suburbs of Pinner, Middlesex, where, as the young child named Reginald Kenneth Dwight, he performs a rousing version of “The Bitch is Back” with his adult self. Nurtured by his grandmother (the great Gemma Jones), ignored by his mother (the barely recognizable Bryce Dallas Howard), and scorned by his emotionally unavailable father (Steven Mackintosh) for being “soft,” young Reggie is a pianist and composer of real talent, a musical savant with the ability to mimic what he hears instantly. This makes for an awkward musical number, the weepy “I Want Love,” a song I admit I’ve never heard. It’s not my favorite of the composer’s works and it’s the kind of musical sequence that makes people who don’t like musicals cringe, but it works well within the context of the story.
From there it’s all uphill as we quickly witness the singer’s journey through adolescence into adulthood and superstardom via a series of invigorating musical numbers including a thrillingly choreographed, knock-down-drag-out version of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” sung first by the teenage, and later, the young adult, Reggie; the dreamlike, old fashioned bopper “Crocodile Rock,” performed (in the film at least) in his star making performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles; and the film’s showstopper, the ingeniously realized title number which begins with John’s drug and alcohol fueled suicide attempt, continues through the ensuing emergency treatment, and climaxes with his legendary performance at Dodger Stadium, where the still high singer, dressed in Dodgers uniform, bats a pitch into the ecstatic crowd.
The lyrics in these and other songs don’t always fit the action. Most of the words to “The Bitch is back” for instance, wouldn’t likely be sung by an inexperienced young boy. And why does Elton sing “Tiny Dancer” as he watches Bernie flirt with a young beauty at a post-concert party when it would have made more sense for Bernie to sing it? But the songs are so good it’s easy to ignore the moments when words and actions don’t line up. And when they do line up, as in “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” and Bernie’s rendering of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” they’re devastating.
Musically, one of the most annoying things about Rhapsody was that for a story about a rock and roll band, it gave us precious few opportunities to actually rock out. That film was peppered with snippets of the band’s hits, but they were rarely heard long enough to satisfy. Only in the film’s final sequence, a recreation of part of their iconic Live Aid performance, do we get the chance to… well… dance… in our seats anyway. I wanted to dance for much of Rocketman… standing up… in the aisle! But since sitting in the middle of the row didn’t afford me the opportunity, I had to make do with a vigorous bouncing of the knee. And it took all the energy I possessed to prevent myself from chiming in; If ever a movie was ripe for a singalong, it’s this one.
The first half of the film concentrates on the singer’s rise to stardom and the beginnings of his relationship with Taupin (Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell), the gifted lyricist who wrote the words to most of his hits. Egerton and Bell have a solid onscreen chemistry and the lifelong platonic love between the two partners is the most convincing and touching relationship of the entire film. John’s relationship with manager/ lover John Reid (Richard Madden) is also given considerable attention. As in Rhapsody, Reid is a manager obsessed with his star’s money-making potential. Eventually he becomes contemptuous of the singer, even as he cashes in. “I’ll still be collecting my 20% long after you’ve killed yourself,” he tells the singer in their climactic fight. But Rhapsody used it’s lover/ manager plot device to demonize queer lifestyles it appeared to know nothing about. In Rocketman, Reid is simply a dick, but we never feel like he represents the gay community. He’s just a gay character who just happens to be an asshat. And Elton’s slow transition into a self-absorbed jackass isn’t because he’s gay or promiscuous. The movie makes it clear it’s the result of his own self-hatred and immaturity. Rocketman is Elton John’s self-confession. Rhapsody was a smear by Queen’s remaining members, who altered reality to make themselves look better. I give the film credit for it’s honest (and sexy), portrayal of John’s sexuality.
Another admirable thing about the film is the way John’s parents are developed over the course of the film as we see them mature and find their proper mates. Too late for poor Elton to be properly loved as a child, but soon enough to make them human. In Rhapsody, we get that phony little moment where the father makes the standard non-apology apology just before Mercury’s Live Aid performance to make some unspecified peace so we can have our phony emotional moment. This fleshing out of the singer’s parents helps instill in Rocketman a sense of honesty that’s refreshing for a musical biopic.
Rocketman isn’t without clichés, historical inaccuracies and dishonest stabs at myth making: Typical of biopics, characters are combined and chronologies altered for narrative convenience; Unlike in the film, John didn’t take his name from John Lennon; And many of the songs are performed and/ or mentioned before they were even written. But these things are overshadowed by the film’s emotional honesty and they’re staged with such imagination, humor and wit, that it doesn’t matter. The big difference is that Rhapsody pretended to be real, whereas Rocketman establishes itself, from its opening frames, as John’s own subjective fantasy version of his life, not a factual chronical.
I’m at a loss to explain why a mediocre picture like Bohemian Rhapsody became a box office mega-hit, while Rocketman, though it did perform well, was no blockbuster. It’s even more of a head scratcher how the film earned a best picture Oscar nomination. That’s partly I think, because Queen’s music connects with today’s young audiences more than John and Taupin’s more traditional pop tunes. And the Oscars best picture category has always valued box office over artistry. And Rhapsody, of course, had Rami Malek, in a magnetic bit of Oscar winning mimicry, to put it over the top.
Egerton may not quite have the screen charisma of Malek, but his Elton John is more nuanced than Malek’s Mercury. It’s questionable whether he’ll get an Oscar nomination for his work, despite his Golden Globe win earlier this week. The Globes have a special category for musicals and comedies meaning there are 10 best actor nominees instead of the Oscar’s five. But he’s entirely convincing throughout the film (note the strange cocaine “grimaces” in his doped-out scenes). But to be honest, he isn’t really the star here anyway. The true stars of Rocketman are the music, the stunning reproductions of John’s famously outlandish costumes, and above all the brilliant collaboration of Fletcher and Hall, who’s dramatic, often theatrical sense of staging frequently enthralls. There are visual ideas in the film that gave me goosebumps. Ironically, Fletcher was called in to finish directing Rhapsody after alleged sleazebag Bryan Singer was fired in the wake of media outrage. One can only dream about what Hall and Fletcher might have done if they had creative control over that film.
If in the end, the two films tell the same clichéd old-Hollywood tale of a brilliant artist compelled toward self-destruction, Rocketman, at the very least, provides a vastly entertaining, danceable entertainment. At its best it paints a compelling portrait of a man struggling to learn to love himself, something most addicts, including the late Mercury would relate to. It’s inspired filmmaking that proves yet again that it’s not just the story that matters, but the way it’s told.