Movie Review: Rocketman
By Matthew Huntley
June 13, 2019
It’s interesting that “Rocketman” has been directed by Dexter Fletcher, because he also served as producer and director of last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (he took over directing duties after Bryan Singer departed), and both films suffer from the same dilemma: neither is allowed to break free from the traditional music biopic template. They plant themselves onto its well-trod path and, for the most part, stay there, although “Rocketman” seizes more opportunities to jump off it than “Bohemian Rhapsody” did, but not enough to make us believe Elton John’s rich and complicated life has been done justice on the big screen.
“Rocketman” is, of course, the story of Elton John, whose music has evolved into such a cornerstone of our collective consciousness that it’s a wonder no Hollywood movie has ever been made about him until now. For me and for millions of others on this planet, John’s songs serve as soothing elixirs that always manage to bring me back down to Earth and place me into a relaxed, comfortable state of familiarity and safety. His songs, like Freddy Mercury and Queen’s or The Beach Boys’, are the kind we don’t turn off in our cars, no matter how many times we’ve heard them. They somehow reassure us everything is going to be okay.
Because John’s influence and legacy is so far-reaching, we wonder is if any movie could have captured his essence fully. To its credit, “Rocketman” tries hard and sometimes succeeds, but it’s ultimately too condensed and mediocre for the artist at hand, and Elton John, as we all know, is anything but mediocre.
Still, the film held me in its grasp much of the time, especially at the beginning when John, played with ceaseless zest and conviction by Taron Egerton, storms into a rehab facility and declares to the group, “My name is Elton Hercules John, and I’m an alcoholic…and a cocaine addict…and a sex addict…and a bulimic.” Donning typical “Elton John Music Performance” garb, which, in this case, includes an orange spandex jump suit, cape, feathers, Devil horns and multi-colored sequin pins, John also confesses to having a weakness for binge shopping. The group leader quietly asks him, “So why are you here now?”
And thus begins John recollecting his life story to the group and to us, and just when we think the film is about to settle down and merely reenact the broad strokes and bold headlines of John’s career like a textbook, it suddenly breaks out into a high-spirited song and dance sequence, which is a welcome relief because it offsets the otherwise routine formula with energy and musicality. When it eventually comes back down, we learn that John was actually born Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) and that he grew up in a quiet suburb of London in the 1950s with his cold-hearted mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), distant and conservative father (Steven Mackintosh), and loving “Nan” (Gemma Jones).
The screenplay by Lee Hall is full of “all too clear” moments meant to give us an idea of what made Reggie want to change his name to Elton John and ultimately transform from a shy, reserved little boy into a wild, larger-than-life glam rocker who would go on to dominate the music industry over the next 50 years and counting. It underlines how his father’s lack of affection wounded him deeply; how his mother’s philandering and selfishness made him angry and resentful; and how his closet homosexuality made him insecure and ashamed.
I’m not suggesting John’s lonely childhood or struggles with identity didn’t play a part in his coming of age, either as a person or as an artist; I only wish Hall’s screenplay and Fletcher’s direction were more subtle with sending these points across. As we might have imagined, the film shows that music, namely playing the piano and writing and composing notes on the spot, became John’s chief creative outlet and means to express his true self. Once “Rocketman” establishes John’s unique talent for extemporaneous music creation, it proceeds, in almost routine-like fashion, to introduce and roll out all the usual players and plot developments associated with movies of this type.
We meet Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), John’s longtime lyricist and confidante with whom he forms a brotherly relationship; Dick James (Stephen Graham) and Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe), who give John and Taupin their first recording contract and big break onto the music scene; John Reid (John Madden), John’s manager and one-time lover whom the film quickly turns into a greedy monster; and Renate Blauel (Celinda Schoenmaker), John’s wife and one half of what we presume was mostly a public relations marriage meant to disguise the singer’s homosexuality.
As the narrative traverses the next five decades, it of course shows that John experienced enormous commercial success, including, among other things, selling more than 500 million records worldwide; headlining seven consecutive number one albums; and winning five Grammy Awards, an Oscar, a Tony, and a Golden Globe. But, as the story goes, fame and fortune didn’t come without a price, and we see that drugs and alcohol became John’s crutches to get him not only through his performances, but also his day-to-day struggles, and his substance abuse sometimes spiraled so out of control it resulted in near-death encounters.
All this makes it seem like Elton John’s tumultuous life actually mirrored a typical Hollywood music biopic; perhaps it even provided the basis for it. Despite its many common tropes, though, “Rocketman” still gets a lot right. As a musical fantasy/drama hybrid, the film is always moving and, for the most part, always entertaining, albeit on a superficial level. Its musical numbers and performances, refreshingly sung by Egerton, give it a fast-paced rhythm and Fletcher and editor Chris Dickens’ decisions not to linger on any one scene for too long, combined with the often hypnotic special effects, make it very easy for us to get caught up in the re-creation of several signature and surreal moments from John’s career.
These include but are not limited to an early childhood performance at a hole-in-the-wall pub in London, which led to John’s brief stint as a backup piano player for various British up-and-coming bands; his historical first appearance at The Troubadour in Los Angeles in 1970, when he sang “Crocodile Rock,” which, as he pounded the piano keys with his winged platform shoes, probably did make it seem like he and the audience were levitating; and his two sold-out shows at Dodgers Stadium in 1975.
Credit must be given to costume designer Julian Day and the film’s various makeup artists. They do an especially good job of transporting us to the times and making us believe the young actors are aging as they experience the ups and downs of show business.
And speaking of re-creating truth, I’ve no doubt “Rocketman” is mostly accurate with regard to John’s life, but accurate or not, it doesn’t matter. What did matter to me was the nuances of his story, be they fact or fiction, and that’s where “Rocketman” falls short. While it does a sensational job of capturing the key moments of man with a long and remarkable career, most of what we see we either knew going in or could have gathered for ourselves. I wanted to know more about the nooks and crannies of John’s life—what made him tick, and then eventually crack—but the film doesn’t devote enough time to these smaller details.
We can see this in the way Lee’s screenplay cuts corners around the story’s three main relationships, including the rocky, unloving marriage between John’s parents. What exactly led to Stanley and Sheila White despising each another? Was there ever love between them? Did their disdain for each other lead to them resenting their son? At one point, after John admits he’s gay, Sheila says to him, “You’ll never be loved properly.” What led her to be so cold? If we’re to believe his relationship with his parents played such a pivotal role in his making, it seems we should know more about who his parents were and why they behaved so heartlessly.
Or how about John’s relationship with Reid? Was it as black and white as the film suggests—at one point passionate and fiery then almost immediately hateful and sour? Was Reid as evil as the film makes him out to be? And what exactly was the nature of John’s marriage to Renate? Did they ever have sex? Did they have an agreement their nuptials were all for show? When did they decide to sleep in separate bedrooms?
The answers to these questions get left by the wayside in favor of the juicier, more digestible visual and aural elements, and while the film, as it is, holds our attention, I started to lose interest in it by the third act because it became clear the story wasn’t going to dig any deeper other than what the standard music biopic genre required.
“Rocketman” reminded me why I love Elton John the artist and why he makes for such a fascinating celebrity and music icon. But it didn’t teach me enough about Elton John the man. His non-tabloid self remains a mystery to me and even though the presentation of “Rocketman” is alive and bustling, its effects are also short-lived. Perhaps a documentary is the better means to get to know the real Elton John and become attuned to him outside of his public persona. Such a film might not be as electrifying or fun as “Rocketman,” but I bet it would be longer lasting, just like his music.