Rocketman is closely related to Bohemian Rhapsody, another biopic of a flamboyant gay rock star, directed by Dexter Fletcher. This one was more of a hit with the critics, partly for the performance of Taron Egerton as Elton John but also because Fletcher was director from the start; Mark Kermode describes him as ‘the master of the modern screen musical’. Unlike Remi Malek, Egerton sings the songs himself. It seems unlikely however that, coming second, Egerton will win all the awards that were heaped on Malek. The film is an epic musical fantasy about the incredible story of Elton John’s breakthrough years. It follows the journey of transformation from shy piano prodigy Reginald Dwight into international superstar Elton John. It also stars Jamie Bell as Elton’s longtime lyricist and writing partner Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden as Elton’s first manager, John Reid, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mother Sheila Farebrother.
While Bohemian Rhapsody was a conventional biopic, Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott, War Horse) take Rocketman in a much different direction. While it still adheres primarily to a chronological recounting of Elton John’s life from his childhood through the early 1990s, it makes the bold move of telling much of his life story through musical numbers that blur reality and fantasy. We get all the ‘greatest hits’ moments of Elton’s (born Reggie Dwight) life, from his childhood with a chilly, distant father (Steven Mackintosh) and a self-obsessed mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), to his friendship/brotherhood with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his ill-fated relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden), a suave but brashly amoral producer/manager with whom Elton becomes romantically and professionally involved, only to have his heart crushed. The film tells the familiar tale of stardom as a mask to hide pain, which is all the more obvious in Elton John’s career given his penchant for wild stage costumes, but it works because Taron Egerton sells the pain behind the glitz and the glory.
Interestingly, the film begins with Elton at his lowest, which is the opposite of Bohemian Rhapsody, which opens with Freddie Mercury’s triumphant march onto the stage at 1985’s Live Aid concert, where he and Queen delivered one of their truly immortal performances. Rocketman begins in what appears to be similar fashion, with Elton striding dramatically down a hallway in slow motion, wearing one of his most outlandish costumes (an orange and gold demon suit, complete with horns and massive wings), only to walk into a support group, where he sits down and immediately confesses to being an alcoholic, a cocaine addict, a sex addict, a shopping addict, and a bulimic. That support group, a fantasy version of the real rehab that Elton used to dry out in the early 1990s, becomes the film’s structuring device, with Elton narrating his life story to a group of mostly silent fellow addicts.
It is at this point that we get the first taste of Rocketman’s conceptual daring, as we are introduced to Elton’s five-year-old self (Matthew Illesley) in his Pinner, Middlesex neighborhood leading a searing rendition of The Bitch Is Back. We will get similar musical sequences throughout the film, with Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting dramatizing Elton’s late teenage self (Kit Connor) navigating the rough-and-tumble world of blue-collar pubs as a rising piano player and the titular Rocketman scoring a drug overdose and suicide attempt. The musical sequences, which often turn into fully choreographed fantasies that nonetheless convey the essence of Elton’s life at that point (the fact that the lyrics don’t always fit is irrelevant since it’s the feeling of the song that matters, not the literal words), are some of the film’s highpoints, and they are at the heart of Rocketman’s effectiveness. All biopics are fantasies of one kind or another; Rocketman has the daring to wear it on its cinematic sleeve.
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