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Review: Rocketman

June 1, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Dexter Fletcher, the director who was brought on to patch up last year’s massively popular Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired from the project, reinvigorates the usual biopic formula by turning Elton John’s life into a full-on musical in Rocketman.

Tonally, the film is similar to Bill Condon’s fictitious Motown biopic Dreamgirls or Julie Taymor’s oft-maligned Beatles musical Across the Universe, fashioning huge production numbers out of Elton John’s classic songs. This saves the film from feeling like a typical biopic, even if the usual story beats are there. In short, this is the film that I wish Bohemian Rhapsody had been.

The film opens with Elton John (Taron Egerton), dressed in a sparkly red costume complete with horns, bursting through the door and walking in slow motion down a hallway, before settling into a group therapy session. This is a startling, almost ironic way to open the film, at first tricking us into thinking he will walk out onto a stage for a grand performance, before taking us somewhere far more sobering and grounded, as if the “rocket man” is coming crashing back down to earth.

This provides the main narrative through line for the film, and it’s an excellent example of how Fletcher balances the fun and the seriousness of Elton John’s story. As he reflects upon the ups and downs of his life while in rehab for his drug and alcohol addictions, the film jumps between flashbacks and song and dance numbers to offer a highly stylized portrait of the musician, from his early years as a child prodigy in England named Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley) learning to play the piano, to his transformation into the flamboyant pop star Elton John.

The film explores his relationships with his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who wrote the lyrics to most of his hits and is a close platonic friend; his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), who starts as loving and supportive before becoming consumed by her son’s fame; his distant, unaffectionate father (Steven Mackintosh) who never hugged him as a child; as well as his manager and partner John Reid (Richard Madden). But as his musical career takes off, his addictions and self-destructive behaviours start to accelerate. The rise, downfall and redemption arc of Elton John’s story is handled quite nicely, and while there are many emotionally taxing moments throughout, the film is also an uplifting one.

Where as Bohemian Rhapsody followed the predictable biopic formula beat for beat, Rocketman feels fresh because it doesn’t try to merely give us a “greatest hits” look at Elton John’s life, but rather uses it as the jumping off point for a jukebox musical that tells his story mainly through his songs. The straight forward, apparently fact-based approach of Bohemian Rhapsody also made the film’s many historical inaccuracies stick out like a sore thumb. Even if Rocketman does play around with its timeline or brush past certain events, it’s understandable and easily forgiven because the film is so stylized and at times fantastical anyways.

With Rocketman, Fletcher has crafted an often impressionistic portrait of Elton John’s life, including several scenes where the singer literally interacts with his childhood self. Through this, the film becomes a metaphorical and often moving story about learning to accept who you were in the past before being able to move forward and love yourself now. The screenplay by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall strikes a good balance between the dramatic moments and musical numbers, with the two often coinciding.

Taron Egerton does great in the role, delivering a show stopping performance that works as both an uncanny impersonation of the iconic performer he is portraying, as well as a bravura, star-making turn for the young actor. Egerton really nails the flamboyancy of Elton John’s performances, but he is also able to convey the hurt and pain lingering underneath, in a way that makes this simply a great piece of acting. The moments when he is broken down and abusing drugs in the dressing room, before forcing a smile on his face and bursting out onto the stage, recall Roy Scheider’s “it’s showtime, folks” routine in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. A scene where he comes out to his mother over the phone is one of the most heartbreaking and brilliantly acted moments in the film, playing off the emotions on his face.

We already know that Egerton can sing from his vocal performance in the 2016 animated movie Sing, where he actually sang a cover of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” which he performs again here, and the fact that he does all of his own singing here adds another layer to his performance. This is Egerton’s show and he kills it in the role, but the supporting cast also deserves much credit for helping flesh out the film. Bell is excellent as Bernie Taupin, bringing nuance and emotional weight to the role in a career-best performance; Howard does memorable work buried under makeup and dyed brown as his mother; and Madden finds the right balance between sexy and cutthroat.

The film’s renditions of the classic songs are great, from the first production number of “The Bitch is Back” performed partially by young actor Matthew Illesley, to moving performances of “Your Song” and “Tiny Dancer” that both take on deeper meaning through how they are used in the film. Finally, there is the title track “Rocketman,” which actually provides the backdrop for one of the film’s most emotionally gutting sequences. In total, the film includes around twenty of his songs.

The film also doesn’t shy away from his sexuality, and actually embraces its R rating. Elton John is a gay man, which won’t be a shock to literally anyone seeing this film, and it’s not a fact that the filmmakers try to hide. There is even a brief sex scene between Egerton and Madden, that the studio was rumoured to be trying to get cut from the film prior to its release to get a lower rating. While the camera pulls up in a way that it might not have if this had been a straight scene, the film is still significant for being one of the first major studio films to actually show gay sex. It’s also a huge step up from Bohemian Rhapsody, which weirdly felt like it was shaming Freddie Mercury for his open sexuality at times.

While Bohemian Rhapsody was mildly entertaining to watch, it was also a very flawed and problematic film for a variety of reasons. On the flip side, Rocketman is a legitimately good and well made movie. It’s very entertaining, but also doesn’t shy away from showing the darker moments, offering a warts and all look at Elton John’s life that is both moving and a lot of fun to watch.

Rocketman is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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