One can’t write about the movie Rocketman without mentioning Bohemian Rhapsody, the 2018 hit about the band Queen and lead singer Freddie Mercury. While I was impressed by Rami Malek’s performance as Mercury, I felt the film was flawed, subdued and too long. One of the problems is that film had two directors, Bryan Singer who was fired but still credited, and Dexter Fletcher, who completed the movie.
Now Fletcher gets to direct an entire movie about a flashy 70s rock god who is conflicted about his sexuality and has issues with substance abuse. Only this time it’s Elton John, and this time Fletcher gets it right, making me think that if he had custody of Rhapsody from the beginning it would have been a better movie. Rocketman (R) is more entertaining, intelligent, daring and insightful than Rhapsody, with an equally impressive lead (Taron Egerton) who does all his own singing.
You know right away that Rocketman isn’t going to be a straight-up biopic with the first scene of Elton John in an orange devil costume, crashing a group therapy session to talk about his life. Rocketman delves into fantasy early on and often, and I say “that’s OK” because it works.
Of course, Elton (then Reginald Dwight) had a difficult childhood with a distant and then absent father, the stereotypical devoted grandmother and a self-absorbed mother, played by a miscast Bryce Dallas Howard who not only looks too young to be Elton’s mom, but never seems to get a handle on the role. I can’t believe there wasn’t a British actress available. Just look at all those unemployed folks from “Downton Abbey.”
Mum does realize she has a piano prodigy on her hands and has her son take lessons, which leads him to a scholarship and paid gigs, and in the late 1960s to lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Rocketman wisely focuses on this relationship for much of the film. Taupin wrote the lyrics to nearly all of John’s hits but avoided the spotlight. There would be no Elton John without Bernie Taupin.
But what about the music, Amanda? Again, let’s go back to Rhapsody’s, “and then we recorded this,” presentation, recreating one Queen hit after another, peaking with Queen’s career-defining set at the Live Aid concert. Impressive, yes, but Rocketman takes on the John/Taupin songbook so much better. Fletcher gives us an intimate “Your Song,” one of the pair’s earliest collaborations, a feverish, “Crocodile Rock,” with John and the crowd actually levitating, and a few straight out of Broadway musical numbers. The audience’s job is to get past the “Hey, it’s 1974 and he didn’t record this until 1980” mindset. My only complaint is that we often don’t get to hear enough of the songs, but on the other hand, just think about how many hits Elton John had when he ruled the Top 40.
Egerton is outstanding throughout, conveying John’s fear about performing, conflict about his homosexuality, anger at his parents and depression (textbook biopic stuff), as well as his command of the stage and showmanship. He’s a terrific singer and masters John’s physical stage presence, reminding us why Elton John dominated the music scene for so long.
Richard Madden lends a sort of threatening charm to John Reid, Elton John’s lover turned business manager turned evil nemesis (a requirement or all superstar biopics). But it’s Jamie Bell who shines in the quieter, almost observational role as Taupin. If this is what Taupin was really like, you understand how their partnership has lasted 50 years. He doesn’t yell at Elton for messing things up or overindulging. When the two break up for a short time, it feels more important than the end of a marriage.
Fletcher is wise not to cram John’s entire career into the movie, focusing on the singer’s world domination period in the 70s and early 80s. We don’t even hear his biggest hit, “Candle in the Wind.” That might make a few fans unhappy but it’s a good move in keeping with Rocketman’s unconventional structure.
A special shout-out to costume designer Julian Day, who created the flamboyant outfits, shoes and glasses, many original and some copies of actual costumes that Elton John wore. The wardrobe is a crucial part of the movie and adds even more dazzle to a dazzling movie. In Amanda’s earliest Oscar prediction, Day will likely take home an Academy Award in 2020.
Rocketman 4½ Stars