REVIEW: Rocketman [2019]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 121 minutes
    Release Date: May 31st, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Paramount Pictures
    Director(s): Dexter Fletcher
    Writer(s): Lee Hall

I’ll take care of the rest.

When you have an icon like Elton John as your subject, the straightforward biopic formula simply won’t work. We know him as the flamboyantly dressed, rock star pianist with funny glasses and sequins who belts out songs that will either make you tap your feet or cry. And while that might have started as a façade to break free of Reginald Dwight’s introverted shell of shyness, he ultimately became this on-stage persona for real. The battles with drugs and alcohol alongside the constant media fervor surrounding his sexuality amidst rumors, marriage, and clarifications working towards the truth became the sort of excessive noise that takes its toil physically, mentally, and emotionally. But the music endured. The music survived it all. So why not let it tell his story?

That’s where Rocketman‘s tagline “Based on a True Fantasy” arrives. Screenwriter Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher transformed this project into a musical after years mired in turnaround while talent and studio support shifted. I’m not talking about a drama with extended concert scenes to get people moving in their seats either. I mean a bona fide musical with characters breaking into song right where they stand so the lyrics can act as dialogue. There’s little Reggie (Matthew Illesley) singing “The Bitch is Back” where it concerns his childhood; teen Reggie (Kit Connor) accompanying an expansive barroom brawl with “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”; and adult Elton (Taron Egerton) overdosing to “Rocket Man”. If a Broadway adaptation isn’t currently being shopped around, the producers are crazy.

In this way it’s less fantasy than augmented reality wherein the wild set pieces and choreographed dance numbers serve as transitions between dramatic sequences depicting Elton’s depression-fueled ride to superstardom. We therefore receive the emotional heft of resonant moments between John and lyricist/BFF Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) as well as the comedic circumstances of events like the pair’s short-lived stint in an apartment owned by the former’s girlfriend (before admitting he’s gay). And along with those more direct instances of happiness or sadness come others that cannot be overshadowed by artifice or humor—namely those dealing with his irredeemable father (Steven Mackintosh) and narcissistic mother (Bryce Dallas Howard). That’s when we understand the steady undercurrent of self-loathing and insecurity forcing him to hide in plain sight.

Hall’s script revolves around a plea for help with Egerton—in full Elton attire with wings and horns—taking a seat within a circle of addicts to share his pain. He lies about his family life while we witness the truth as Fletcher rolls through indelible moments marked by the lack of affection from Reggie’s parents and saving grace of a loving grandmother (Gemma Jones). The boy discovers his absolute pitch by playing complicated pieces with little effort before earning a scholarship and forming a band. From there it’s a meeting with Dick James’ (Stephen Graham) assistant Ray (Charlie Rowe), a chance discovery of Taupin’s words, and a musical marriage that takes them to Doug Weston’s (Tate Donovan) Troubadour nightclub in California. The rest is history.

The musical numbers initially work to inject electricity into the more staid expository background of this prodigy turned rock-n-roller. From there, however, they become a product of Elton’s vices as reality and hallucination overlap until he’s jolted awake from the latest stupor. When conversations grow too hard to handle, the music starts to play and the characters’ words turn into Taupin’s lyrics so these songs can become an escape from the harsh truths Elton is forced to confront and a nightmarish twisting of time and space that pushes him forward until it proves too difficult to breathe. Abandoned in youth without a voice to fight back, he feels even lonelier surrounded by thousands of people here for his fame. His life becomes one long bad trip without release.

Rocketman follows suit as the filmmakers seek to delve deeper than appearances to really highlight the existential struggle behind Elton’s choices. We watch Egerton gradually remove pieces of his costume while telling his story to those strangers at therapy as the version of himself inside that story steadily covers himself with more. One Elton falls prey to the lifestyle that’s been thrust upon him as a coping mechanism while the other strips it away to reunite with Reggie since it’s that past version of himself who hurts and needs relief. His parents and manager/ex-lover (Richard Madden‘s John Reid) become triggers that make him feel like an unworthy child and thus become the figures he must confront in order to move forward as someone deserving of his accomplishments.

The drugs and alcohol aren’t therefore the demons he faces, but the numbing agents allowing him to forget his broken heart. And since we see his optimism working with Bernie at the start, we know the genius exists despite the narcotics. Egerton shows his chops as a result by constantly shifting between highs and lows with the music serving as a backbone. This means the songs themselves have to adapt to their position in the narrative whether that entails a change in tempo, arrangement, or purpose. Elton didn’t write the words, so they don’t magically align with his life. The film instead utilizes their themes to lead us through as Egerton wields their emotive power to infer upon his pain with tone and performance proving paramount.

It’s a hell of a ride that never takes its foot off the gas thanks to potential lulls being replaced by a new musical number transporting us back and forth across time. The film’s structure is crucial to its pacing so introspective Alcoholics Anonymous Elton can do the heavy lifting while the different versions of his past selves exist in a fictionalized memory fluidly moving from hardship to elation with nothing more than a piano cue. Staying in this perpetual state of flux makes it so we never have long before diving back into the chaos. We experience the uncompromising drama and insane theatrics (on-stage and off) in tandem so objective fact becomes less crucial than feeling. This isn’t our perception of Elton John’s life. It’s his.

[1] Taron Egerton in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures. © 2018 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] Jamie Bell as Bernie and Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.© 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Taron Egerton plays Elton John, Richard Madden plays John Reid and Bryce Dallas Howard plays Sheila in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.© 2018 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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