Scott’s Review #906
Reviewed June 5, 2019
Following in the footsteps of the unexpected success of 2018’s rock biography Bohemian Rhapsody, comes the similar themed Rocketman (2019). This time the subject at hand is Elton John rather than Freddie Mercury, but both storied figures contain unquestionable comparisons as their successes, failures, and struggles are well documented. Both films take their name from popular title songs and both have the same director in the mix, Dexter Fletcher.
Freddie Mercury and Elton John are both larger than life onstage personas while both reportedly suffered from shyness, creating characters to portray to ease difficulties. Rocketman gets the slight edge over Bohemian Rhapsody when comparing the two, with experimental and psychedelic sequences making the experience more left of center than the latter and lacking a hefty feel-good component. I would venture to assess that Rocketman has darker overtones.
The film opens in an impressive way as a now adult, successful Elton John (Taron Egerton) is in rehab, begrudgingly attending a support group therapy session- this scene will reoccur throughout the film as John slowly reveals more to the group about his childhood, rise to fame, and struggles with numerous demons. This is key to the enjoyment of the film as it backtracks in time frequently and we see John’s development as both a musician and on a personal level.
Many scenes play out like a Broadway play which is an ingenious approach, not only a treat for fans of John’s huge catalog of songs, but immensely creative from a cinematic perspective. The high point of the film, the scenes are not only showy, but catapult the direction of the film instead of slowing down the events. Fantastic are offerings of hit songs like “Tiny Dancer”, as shown during John’s first trip to Los Angeles, as he is forced to witness his then crush Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) take up with a supermodel at an LSD infused Hollywood party.
The musical numbers offer glimpses into the mind and heart of Elton, and other characters, through song. A teary number occurs early on when a pained, boyish Elton is learning piano, facing struggles at home. When the song begins it is Elton’s tune to carry but then his father sings a few lines, then his mother, then his grandmother. Each person offers his or her own perspective based on the lyric they are singing. The beauty of this scene is powerful and sets the tone of the scenes to follow.
Rocketman is an emotional film, triggering laughter and tears throughout its duration. Thanks to Egerton who carries the film, the audience cares for him as a human being instead of a larger than life rock star. We feel his pain, cry his tears, and smile during rare moments when he is content. He faces insecurity, sex addiction, drug and alcohol addiction, and an eating disorder. Through Egerton, we face the battles alongside of him.
Elton John serves as Executive Producer of the film providing a measure of truth and honesty in storytelling, something Bohemian Rhapsody was accused of not containing. John’s parents are portrayed accurately and decidedly, and both mother and father are dastardly, nearly ruining Elton’s self-esteem for life. Dallas Bryce-Howard as his mother is happy to capitalize financially on his fame but sticks a dagger in his heart when she professes he will never be loved since he is a gay man.
His father is nearly as bad. Abandoning his loveless marriage to Elton’s mother, he eventually finds happiness with another woman and produces two boys. He can never love his eldest son despite Elton’s efforts to reconnect. To add insult to injury, his father asks him to cross out the words “to Dad” on an album autograph, instead requesting it go to a colleague. Elton is devastated.
Events are not all dire and dreary as with his parents and a major suicide attempt. Happier times are shown and his grandmother (wonderfully played by Gemma Jones) remains an ardent supporter. His relationship with Taupin is one of the most benevolent and a life-long cause of trust and respect, and once his act is cleaned up Elton can appreciate the finer things in life more completely.
Egerton performs beautifully in acting as well as singing capabilities but lacks the singing chops that Elton Jon has. The decision was made not to have Egerton lip-sync which deserves its own measure of praise. Interesting to wonder what the opposite choice would have resulted in, like with Bohemian Rhapsody, we are left with a brilliant portrayal of John by Egerton.
Watched in tandem with Bohemian Rhapsody, a great idea given the back to back releases, is one recommendation for comparison sake. Offering a more creative experience- again the musical numbers are superb, and both switching through back and forth timelines, Rocketman (2019) squeaks out the victory for me and doesn’t the victor go the spoils? If Rami Malek won the coveted Best Actor Oscar statuette what will that mean for the tremendous turn that Egerton gives?