‘Rocketman’ Is Bold, Electrifying, and Unforgettable

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Rocketman is in theaters everywhere on May 31st

Last year, filmmaker Dexter Fletcher took over after Bryan Singer was infamously fired from directing the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which would later (somehow) go onto win several Academy Awards, including Best Actor for star Rami Malek. It’s widely agreed that the recognition of Bohemian Rhapsody at the Oscars is one of the biggest atrocities the Academy has ever committed, and this was in a year where Green Book was awarded best picture. I’m positive that Fletcher’s work piecing the film back together helped it a great deal and at least made it watchable as a result. However, it’s clear he was saving his energy for the next thing he was working on.

Rocketman is a biopic of famed musician Elton John. However, that doesn’t feel like the right description. Rocketman is a rousing, intoxicating fever-dream fantasy Broadway musical addiction/recovery drama, an intimate look at the demons that possess an artist, at once an utter spectacle and then intimately personal. It’s my favorite film so far this year.

We follow Elton John (Taron Egerton) as he comes to a crossroads in his life. His relationships have become strained due to his own inner demons, professionally and personally, and he doesn’t know where to go next. The film is a musical exploration of his career and personal life, and how an insignificant little boy from England named Reggie Dwight became Elton John.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

If Taron Egerton is not nominated for an Oscar for his performance, there is something very wrong with the way the Academy operates. He’s utterly triumphant in his performance. The amount of work that went into his role is staggering, and he upstages Rami Malek in every possible way. Egerton is wearing a dental prosthetic too, and that’s not once the focal point of his performance. His performance is so impressive and so precise and nuanced. He is excellent in a more showy moment where he’s screaming at a friend, but really begging for help, and he’s even better in moments where the script asks him to play internal conflict in a way that any viewer can relate and sympathize with. The fact that this larger-than-life personality can seem so raw and genuine is no easy thing for a performance to accomplish, and he’s totally up to the task. And also he’s singing. That’s another thing he has over Rami Malek. He’s singing a large number of Elton John hits, sometimes on the stage and sometimes within the context of a narrative musical, and he has a distinct knack for making it not sound like a person singing at a karaoke bar. His singing voice is very faithful to the real Elton John, but that’s not the most exciting thing about his live singing. Egerton has a set of pipes that truly make the musical numbers soar. This could be considered a career-defining performance, but I hope Taron Egerton continues to inspire and impress audiences for a very long time.

Jamie Bell plays Bernie Taupin, John’s longtime friend, and collaborator. Bell is an actor that has consistently done solid work, but rarely does he steal the show like he does here. The friendliness behind Bernie’s eyes and how he’s one of the few people that never had any kind of ulterior motive or wanted something from Elton as the story progresses sets him apart from every other person in his life. Taupin is portrayed as the only person who can bring John back from the dead, and the unconditional love that goes into that kind of friendship is expressed beautifully. Bell is excellent in the role.

Game of Thrones fan favorite Richard Madden plays John Reid, a romantic interest for John, who becomes his villainous manager, and he’s terrific. Bohemian Rhapsody did the story of the treacherous gay manager and played right into that cliché, and I’m happy to say that’s not exactly the way things unfold with Madden’s character. This is a film actively left-turning against every stereotype it possibly can. Bryce Dallas Howard plays John’s mother, and she’s more believable as the mother of a small child, rather than when she wears too-subtle aging makeup later on. But she’s doing great work,  and she’s an actress I respect a little more each time I see her. Gemma Jones plays John’s grandmother, and it’s always good to see her.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Oh, yes, and the entire cast sings. The film occasionally asks characters other than John to break into a musical number. Every actor is up for it, and nobody embarrasses themselves. The musical numbers, arguably, are where this movie comes to life most vividly, and certain songs are woven into the story organically in ways you wouldn’t expect. The musical numbers are utterly joyous, and the film itself feels very stagy and theatrical in the best possible way. The way the story is structured would make it very easy to adapt for the Broadway/West End stage, and I would be surprised if it didn’t end up there.

Director Dexter Fletcher and his frequent collaborating cinematographer George Richmond make this film look terrific. The vibrant, dazzling colors of the fantasy musical numbers contrasted by the darker, muted tones when the film snaps back to reality makes the film look remarkably striking. The script by playwright Lee Hall is structured in a refreshing and unfamiliar way. It’s over-the-top and ostentatious and at times overwhelmingly emotional. The story is mostly about the insecure Elton John’s internal journey of self-discovery and learning to love the person he is, and the entire movie could be seen as an inner monologue. There’s a reason I’m vague about the plot synopsis. One of the best things about this movie is the way every moment unfolds.

It’s obvious how involved Elton John, himself, was in the production of this film. It’s full of observations and dialogue that feel so specific to the life this star has lived, and where he’s still going. My big problem with Bohemian Rhapsody is that it is nothing more than a ‘buy the greatest hits!’ biopic. There was nothing deeper to the story than some frivolous observations about how its hero was lonely, but not why. Rocketman wants you to buy the hits too – it wants you to buy the soundtrack. But it also wants to give you something to think about regarding the way the public treats musicians, and people in the public eye in a more general sense. In a single take, we see John face a near-death experience and then go out on stage to entertain the masses with a smile on his face. This is a moment teased in the trailer that is unexpectedly haunting in the context of the film.

Taron Egerton’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle featured a cameo by Elton John. Egerton also sang the song ‘I’m Still Standing’ in the animated film Sing. Jamie Bell started his career as a child actor in the film Billy Elliot, which later inspired a Broadway musical of the same name, with music written by Elton John. Screenwriter Lee Hall collaborated with John for the Billy Elliot musical. This is a movie full of people who have been profoundly inspired by John’s work. It’s clearly a labor of love, and it’s evident in every frame.

Rocketman is flashy, theatrical, extravagant, and so incredibly honest and personal. It’s inventively structured, brilliantly directed, thrillingly acted and strikingly intimate. The same way Bohemian Rhapsody was not the movie that Freddie Mercury deserved, Rocketman is the movie Elton John deserves. I am not even going to begin to pick apart what is factually accurate or inaccurate here, because the trailer plainly says, ‘based on a true fantasy,’ and the film is so explosively enjoyable you don’t mind leaving it at that. Egerton’s performance is the centerpiece, and it’s the reason to go, but there is so much more to enjoy here. This is a bold, electrifying, and unforgettable film that knows how risky it is, but is never afraid to take chances. Heart-racing, triumphant, exhilarating and bracingly original, Rocketman sets a new standard for the musician biopic, and it has Oscar glory written all over it.

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