Dir. Dexter Fletcher; Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell
[3 out of 4 stars]
As an eight-year-old who loved playing piano but who was slowly realizing that the classical route was not going to be the one for me, discovering Elton John felt something like getting a zap from jumper cables. Who was this exuberant piano player who stormed on stage in sequins and brought such feverish energy to his musicianship? I was transfixed, and between his and Billy Joel’s music, I found the avenue of piano playing that I wanted to head down. The two quickly became my idols, and have remained my favorite musicians all these years later. So, you can imagine that I was skeptical when Rocketman (2019) was announced, worried that the project wouldn’t quite capture the figure I revered. I only became more concerned after the release of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), a global smash hit that was nonetheless a tepid and uninspired movie about another larger-than-life rockstar. However I am happy to report that Rocketman avoids the majority of the issues that plagued Rhapsody, and even offers an updated format for the tired genre of musical biopic.
Rocketman opens on a middle-aged Elton John who has reached the rock-bottom of his life so far. Clothed in a orange-sequin Devil costume complete with horns and wings, John storms into an addiction recovery center and declares that he is “an alcoholic, cocaine addict, sex addict, bulimic, shopaholic” and so on. Spurned by a question from the group’s mediator about his childhood, John slips into an extended flashback and reflection that constitutes the plot of the movie. We begin with a young John still with his birth name of Reginald “Reggie” Dwight, played by Matthew Illesley in the pre-teen years and then Kit Connor later on. We explore his volatile home life with mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones), and absentee father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh). The young man turns to the piano and music to find joy in his life, and this leads him to search for songwriting work as a composer, a choice that unites him with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). After a few early misfires, John and Taupin write hit after hit, and John is catapulted into international stardom, bringing him into contact with the many vices that would come to define the next decade of his life. It is the story of the birth of a superstar, and the toll that fame takes when you cannot outrun the trauma that you have experienced.
Much of my trepidation about Rocketman came from the involvement of director Dexter Fletcher due to the unmitigated mess that was Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie Fletcher took over directing duties for after initial director Bryan Singer was accused of sexual misconduct. However, these doubts were totally unfounded. Rocketman demonstrates that the failings of Rhapsody can be attributed to Singer’s stewardship because Fletcher does truly inspired work in Rocketman that suggests Rhapsody would have been markedly better if placed in his hands from the beginning. Fletcher seems to have worked closely with costume designers, set designers, art directors, and the whole creative team to present the most vibrant reality possible. John is an over-the-top personality, and Fletcher and company celebrate that in every frame, even when John is not decked out in his more absurd outfits. This is established in the film’s first musical number when John moves into memories of his childhood, walking through the streets while his younger self dances with neighbors. All the colors are muted except for John’s present day orange-sequin Devil costume and his younger self’s sharp suit and shorts. He is always more technicolor than anyone around him. Furthermore, Fletcher seems to operate with great trust for his performers, relying heavily on close-ups to bring us in tight with the characters. This is especially apparent early on when the Dwight family sings “I Want Love,” all isolated in their own corners of the house. It is simply shot, mostly a variation of close-ups and medium shots that guide your attention to the heartbreaking lyrics they all sing, expressing how each is unable to give or receive the love they most want from one another. It is devastatingly simple.
Nonetheless, Fletcher has plenty of chances to flex his more flashy directorial mettle, and no more so than in the later musical set pieces. These moments, wonderfully constructed by screenwriter Lee Hall, offer some of the most memorable stretches of the film. At one point, once John has become a bona fide star, his lover and soon-to-be manager John Reid (Richard Madden) tells Elton to “think bigger” when it comes to what he wants. They embark on an extravaganza of shopping, boozing, dancing, and pampering all while singing along to “Honky Cat.” The scene is composed of the usual close-ups and medium shots, but is more so reliant on sweeping tracking shots and wide angles that reveal a musical number seemingly straight out of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) or My Fair Lady (1964). There are dancing waiters, singing bartenders, and costume changes on a rotating set of locations all built to look like they are on a soundstage. It is glitzy and flashy, but also obviously constructed, getting to the topical nature of John’s happiness and gesturing at the flimsiness of such a fabricated reality: we see all the diamonds, booze, and glamour but when you focus on what’s happening underneath their sheen the beauty rubs away. John is loving the newfound elegance, but it is only a temporary fix for his trauma. It is an intoxicating sequence that is intricately layered in what it suggests thematically.
Elsewhere, Fletcher leans even further into the surreal to get at John’s unstable nature, setting his suicide attempt to “Rocket Man (I Think it’s Going to be a Long, Long Time).” John downs pills and vodka and then dives into the pool ready to drown himself, and finds his younger self in an astronaut suit playing and singing at a miniature piano on the pool floor. As he floats toward this vision of himself, he joins in singing, surrounded by the oppressive darkness of the deep water. It is haunting and gives a new perspective on the hauntingly lonely lyrics of the song, something directly tied to the surreal disquieting nature of the scene. It is sequences like this that elevates the movie above the traditional idea of the ‘tortured genius’ biopic. On paper, John’s story is presented in the same way that older biopics on other musicians like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly have, depicting addiction and trauma as wrapped up in their creative processes. It is a well-worn approach that has been done countless times before, but the fantastical musical sequences give it a freshness that makes it more enjoyable, if not able to fully cloak the reality that the narrative arc is unoriginal. In this way I do believe that Fletcher enhances the scriptwork, giving it the edge that it needs to be memorable.
For all of this, without a perfect casting for John, the movie would have been hollow. Thankfully Egerton delivers the performance of his career, capturing the internal turmoil and outward extravagance of John in all his pain and glory. I often bemoan biopics for their cheap impersonation style performances, one of the things that bedeviled Rami Malek in Rhapsody, but Egerton’s portrayal seems fully lived-in. Part of this is no doubt that he is a gifted singer who sounds very little like John, therefore making each of his performances feel familiar but fresh. The vocal work is entirely Egerton with no extra coverage provided by John’s original recordings. As a result there is no whiff of the impersonation approach in him, favoring instead an emotional and committed musicianship (I particularly love his enlivened take on “I’m Still Standing” that played with the original’s tempo and melodic phrasing).
Egerton also balances the tension of John’s personal pain and public joyousness, something that is never better than in scenes with Bell. The friendship between Taupin and John, arguably the most defining friendship of John’s real life, is the cornerstone of the movie. They meet in a dingy café early on and end up singing “Lared” together by the end, both actors masterfully showing the progression from awkward first meeting to sudden and easy camaraderie. This progresses and deepens as any friendship does, and so leads us to what I think is the single best moment of acting Egerton delivers in the film. Nearing the rock-bottom crash, John storms through the backstage getting ready to play a show. He is angry and Taupin tries to get through to him, resulting in John snapping at him. Bell and Egerton play the scene like two brothers arguing, giving the exchange an unbridled fury climaxing when Egerton shouts that people came to see “Elton fucking John” not Reginald Dwight. There is a moment of quiet before Egerton reaches back and places a hand on Bell’s arm, Egerton’s shoulders slouching and embodying the image of an exhausted and defeated man before he apologizes. You can feel the love between these two men, and the fight is resolved before John goes on stage, Egerton leaping and bouncing onstage in front of the audience making it painfully clear how much of the stage presence is a persona he performs alongside his music. I could go on and on, but instead I simply suggest that you go see the performance for yourselves because it is something to behold.
It is rare that watching a biopic about an artist can approximate the feeling we have as fans when we interact with the subject’s art, and while Rocketman was never going to be as engaging and exuberant as Elton John in the flesh, I give it great credit for getting close. It is movies like this, those that operate within a stale genre and happen to inject it with a newfound energy, that make me excited to keep going to the theater. Much has been made this summer about the flailing box office numbers and the impending algorithmizing of content creation, and while these are valid fears that suggest a drastic restructuring of the movie industry, I take heart in the continued efforts of filmmakers to deploy a personal style while working within the mainstream system. Fletcher and company achieve something admirable with Rocketman, and I highly recommend it to Elton John fans and non-fans alike.