Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is the life story of music legend Elton John. It not only takes a deep dive into the Elton John/Bernie Taupin catalog, but also dives deep into Elton’s childhood and his path to his addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex, and shopping. The film opens with Elton John (Taron Egerton) stepping into an AA meeting dressed in a signature Elton-John flamboyant, orange demon outfit. In what would be the longest support group meeting in history, Elton begins talking about his childhood as the AA setting morphs into a dream sequence/music video of his song, The Bitch is Back.
Born a musical prodigy, young Reginald Kenneth Dwight (Matthew Illesley) had the misfortune of being born into a loveless marriage between his parents Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard). His parents are a stellar example of how abusive parents can be without ever resorting to physical abuse. Stanley hated his wife and therefore hated Reggie equally. Sheila was unhappy and made sure her son was just as miserable as she was. Always a disapproving and viciously disappointed mother, Sheila at least allowed Reggie to learn the piano and attend the best music schools.
“With fame on the horizon, Reggie changes his name to Elton Hercules John.”
An older Reggie soon becomes the back-up musicians for a touring American rock ‘n roll band. While scouted by Liberty Records A&R manager Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe), he introduces Reggie to what soon would be his longtime writing partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). With fame on the horizon, Reggie changes his name to Elton Hercules John. Demanding the duo produce a song the masses will enjoy, the two write the hit Your Song and Elton is immediately flown to Los Angeles to become a really big star. There he meets his first love and manager John Reed (Richard Madden) and is introduced to the magic of Los Angeles, namely hardcore drug addiction and alcoholism.
Rocketman is a movie musical where characters suddenly burst into one of Elton’s large catalog of hits and lesser-known hits along with an occasional elaborate sequence of choreography. I hesitate to call them “dance numbers.” As a fan of the musical, I wanted to love this film more than I did. Ultimately, I walked away with a good feeling instead of a great feeling. While fun to watch, there are just a few elements that kept Rocketman from leaving Earth’s orbit.
Screenwriter Lee Hall kept true to Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s songs. All lyrics were performed as written, but the lyrics didn’t necessarily gel with the scene. Rather than create a scene based on the song’s literal words, songs are used more to convey the feelings of the characters at that moment (everyone sings in this film), which is more of a warning to you and not a criticism. Although the lyrics didn’t change to fit the situation, the original song’s tempo and orchestration did change as needed.
“…does an admirable job developing an Elton John-style to his singing. But there is only one Elton John…”
As Elton, Taron Egerton was a great choice. He sings everything and does an admirable job developing an Elton John-style to his singing. But there is only one Elton John, and apart from not singing in Elton’s Baritone range, Egerton lacks the vocal power needed and delivers excellent covers.
The most fascinating part of Rocketman is its depiction of Elton John’s life of abuse. The film lays out the lack of love and disapproval of his parents, his abusive relationship with his lover and manager John Reed, and the stigma associated with being a homosexual in the 70s and 80s; all leading to the slow path of self-hatred that gave rise to his mountain of addictions. Maybe it’s these harsh, dark tones that kept the musical at a sad, melancholy level affecting the entire project. You usually find joy and inspiration from Elton’s music, but here they are manipulated to fit his dark, tragic life at the time.
I found his ultimate destiny of recovery to be more inspiring than songs that accompanied that journey. Visually speaking, Fletcher’s film is wonderful to watch. The fantastical choices he occasionally makes is grounded and never pull you out of the film. I liked Rocketman enough to give it a recommendation, but in the end, it felt like turning Elton John’s music and life into a musical and the dark, recovery story cannibalized one another and lessened the overall film.
Rocketman (2019) Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Written by Lee Hall. Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Gemma Jones, Steven Mackintosh.
7 out of 10 stars