“You gotta kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you wanna be.”
Before the picture even began, I jotted down in my notebook that the beginning was going to be crucial to Rocketman’s success, going so far as to say that it might even make or break the entire endeavor. And because this fever dream of a film is comfortably rated R, the story holds nothing back in the opening moments. Elton John (Taron Egerton) storms into an AA meeting dressed to the nines in a satanic getup, horns on his head and demonic wings on his shoulders. He’s addicted to booze, drugs, sex. He’s also a bulimic who tries to purge all the excess so he can imbibe some more. Rocketman never shies away from the fantastical elements of an unbelievable life, and it’s just as willing to surrender over to the ugliness of a star who’s on the fast track towards becoming a supernova.
For how creative the musical is visually, the first 15-20 minutes are too burdened by rash exposition and the tired tropes of many biopics. Born Reginald “Reggie” Dwight to an indifferent mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), an absent father (Steven Mackintosh), and a lone supporter in his grandmother (Gemma Jones), Reggie found safety and solace at the piano, proving to have a prodigious memory and a natural knack for pounding away at the keys. Nothing about these early scenes is particularly off-putting, and they prove to be vital moments that help us to fully understand Elton’s adult demons, but they quickly grow tiresome. The opening act of the film is a solid reference point and not much else.
If anything, the calm acts like a countdown to the inevitable take-off you expect from such a rich and vibrant artist. Quick cuts jump to Reggie as a young man, running from a pub to a carnival while belting out “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” and it’s by far one of the best movie moments I’ve seen so far this year. The editing, the sound, the camerawork, the uncanny ability to toe the delicate line between dramaturgy/musical theatrics, at times blending the two together like a real-life adaptation of Fantasia. The closest thing I can compare Rocketman to is Across the Universe, in that the melodies provide the fireworks and the lyrics guide the narrative, but this film’s more grounded and fancies intimacy, using music as a weaponized tool to wreck havoc and to put the pieces back together.
We get a glimpse into the relationship between Elton and his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). They immediately clicked, almost likes two halves finally finding their counterpart to make a whole, and they share many of the same ups and downs. There’s also John Reid (Richard Madden), shown here as Elton’s eventual manager and his first serious lover as an out gay man. Their relationship is toxic to say the least, leading to more drinks and pills and cocaine. One brilliant moment amidst his long dip in the pool of debauchery shows Elton center stage, his outfits changing to signify the passage of time and the camera swirling out of control, creating the effect of a person in an oscillating and unforgiving spiral which refuses to go down. Rocketman doesn’t skimp on or skip over the swift rise to absolute super stardom, nor does it refuse to show the inevitable fall from grace.
While I thought Lee Hall’s script could have been workshopped some more (the musical number I previously mentioned would’ve made for a slam dunk of an intro), he wisely chooses to center the film in a place of healing for its internally broken icon. Rocketman allows Elton to tell his own story, always circling back to the therapy group at different points as he slowly sheds the razzle dazzle and the glitzy glamour of his ridiculous wardrobe, trying to be comfortable in his own skin for the first time in years. It’s far from a perfect film and I have to admit that it drags just a smidge, but what’s so remarkable is that Rocketman manages to be a cautionary tale with a happy ending and a testimony to healing through self-love.
Dexter Fletcher deserves so much credit for the success of this film, especially after stepping into the director’s chair and bringing the safe sing-along that is Bohemian Rhapsody to the finish line. The two couldn’t be more different. In Rocketman, and with the backing of Elton himself, Fletcher was able to tell a real life story. One full of explicit sexuality and an uncensored sense of truth. It’s an unfiltered diary entry that explodes off the screen, much thanks to the virtuoso work from Taron Egerton. It’s impossible to not compare his work against Rami Malek’s impressive turn as Freddie Mercury last year, and Egerton’s performance shows us what acting is really all about. With all due respect to Malek, an Oscar winner in his own right, he merely did an imitation, so pitch-perfect in the physicality and yet so lifeless behind the eyes. Egerton is different, not just because he’s actually singing – and singing quite well – but because the film itself gives him the agency to channel Elton’s eternally young spirit and to emote his pain rather than just impersonate his mannerisms. Look for Rocketman to clean up at the Golden Globes, and if there’s any justice in this world, for Egerton to be celebrated for what’s sure to be one of the most electric, heartbreaking, transformative, and altogether fully immersive performances of the year. Rocketman is Elton John’s gift to the world and I assure that this song’s for you.
“It’s not weak to ask for help.”
Rating: 4 out of 5