It is impossible to avoid comparisons between Rocketman and last year’s hugely successful Bohemian Rhapsody. Both put the lives of legendary and beloved rock stars on-screen. Both take place in the Seventies and Eighties. And both were directed by Dexter Fletcher. Fletcher even took over on Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired.
But the films couldn’t be more different in their execution. Bohemian Rhapsody, although generally lauded by critics for Rami Malek’s performance as Queen’s frontman, is honestly a pretty straight-forward and safe depiction of Freddie Mercury’s life. It suggests without depiction.
Many moviegoers criticized the film expecting a more honest portrayal.
Remember folks, this is Hollywood. The complexities of an incredibly famous person’s life generally don’t fit into a two-hour film. It helps when the individual had a say in the movie-making.
In Rocketman, Elton John was a presence on set. He relentlessly battled studios to tell the story he wanted and lobbied to have an R rating.
“Some studios wanted to tone down the sex and drugs so the film would get a PG-13 rating,” John wrote in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “But I haven’t led a PG-13 life. I didn’t want a film packed with drugs and sex, but equally, everyone knows I had quite a lot of both during the ‘70s and ‘80s, so there didn’t seem to be much point in making a movie that implied that after every gig, I’d quietly gone back to my hotel room with a glass of warm milk and the Gideon’s Bible for company.”
Almost immediately, it becomes apparent that Rocketman is a very different film from the Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody and other rock-star biopics. Viewers see a figure walking toward them. It’s Elton (played masterfully by Taron Egerton) in a sequined devil jumpsuit. You assume he’s walking offstage to the dressing room. Instead he walks right into a 12-step meeting and plops down in an empty seat, the costume’s feathered wings making a ruffling sound that is briefly comical. Then he starts talking, and any impulse to laugh is gone.
Elton voluntarily admits why he’s there: Alcohol. Cocaine. Sex. The litany of vices goes on. The fact that he’s wearing a stage outfit when other group members are in street clothes suddenly doesn’t seem all that strange, or funny.
There’s a sense that this is how Elton John really sees himself. He remembers who he once was, but doesn’t identify with the person, or more appropriately, a boy named Reginald Dwight.
Cut to the next scene where Reggie (Matthew Illesley) roams his London neighborhood’s streets with schoolmates on their way home. This might be a bit pedestrian if it were not for a fully-choreographed rendition of “The Bitch Is Back.” This is after all a musical and Elton’s sound is used to great effect. The songs are indeed familiar, some rearranged, but they become part of the narrative, which makes their use all the more poignant.
Reggie desperately searches for affection from his emotionally-distant father (Steven Mackintosh) and uncaring, cruel mother (Bryce Dallas Howard). After realizing he’ll receive none at all, he begins to sing “I Want Love”, a tune not written until 2001. Despite the anachronicity, its placement here is perfect.
It’s a pivotal scene. It sets the tone for what’s to come: Elton’s failed relationships, narcissism, hedonism, drug and alcohol use. The film doesn’t shy away from any of it, even a public suicide attempt. Despite a prodigious talent for playing piano by ear and acceptance into the prestigious Royal Academy of Music, as Elton skyrockets to fame, he descends into darkness.
The film seamlessly transitions to Egerton, as the newly-christened Elton finds his way playing backup for numerous touring acts. Elton meets Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), signs a record contract, and is seduced by his sometimes intimidating manager John Reid (Richard Madden).
Everyone around Elton seems to want something from him, or to control him, except for Taupin. Taupin is his champion. Their connection during the writing of “Your Song” shows why they became the most revered songwriting duo after Lennon and McCartney.
When Egerton sings Elton’s classic songs, the emotion he employs gives them a depth usually missing when a tune is simply acted out. In Bohemian Rhapsody Malek “became” Mercury but Egerton is fully invested in every single nuance of his role.
Though the movie delves into fantasy quite a bit, as when Elton rises above his piano at the Troubadour, how Egerton approaches Elton feels completely authentic. You are happy with him, frightened for him, and crushed by his sadness. “Bennie and the Jets” has never sounded more ominous.
This is the movie Elton John wanted it to be. As he wrote, “It’s obviously not all true. But it’s the truth.” And the unflinching honesty within makes Rocketman truly splendidly compelling.
Rocketman is rated R is for language, drug use, and sexual content.
Runtime: 121 minutes