ROCKETMAN is the second musical I’ve really loved this year. Whereas the first, WILD ROSE kept its cowboy-booted feet firmly on the ground, the story of the man formally known as Reg Dwight’s formative years and breakthrough floats off into another plain. This is more rock opera than straight biopic, is appropriately camp and always feeling emotionally connected even as it removes itself from reality.
Reginald Dwight, AKA Elton Hercules John’s (Taron Egerton) life from childhood to breakthrough, fame and rehab (and not necessarily in that order) as told through his music.
Taron Egerton is a force of nature in this. Yes, he’s very kind casting for young Elton John even when given happy teeth and a receding hairline, but you really don’t mind after he belts out the first tune. Making his mark in the opening scene as he swagger-staggers into rehab in full stage regalia, he completely metamorphoses into Elton. A few scenes of an predictably miserable childhood later Egerton yanks the spotlight back to him, completely owning the strikingly choreographed musical number to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and the energy never dissipates again. Bryce Dallas Howard is…leftfield casting for Elton’s mother, but she’s better here than she has been in a long time here (despite some not good old age makeup later on), with strong support also coming from Gemma Jones and Jamie Bell.
It’s the dramatic license, the liberties taken with the chronology of songs and events that frees the film, that gives it a loose energy. What song from Elton’s entire career conveys where he’s at at this particular moment in life the most effectively? Who cares if it’s one of his later hits that he’s singing as an unloved child (Matthew Illesley)? Very early on in his career we see him don the first of his eye-catching stage costumes and from here on he rarely lets his performance persona slip, entombing his myriad issues behind flamboyance, substances and sex.
Elsewhere when fantasy takes precedent, Elton’s onlookers, in a rather playful decision from director Dexter Fletcher, occasionally appear to notice when we hit the realms of magical realism. Audiences float, Elton rocket-boosts off into the sky, in one dazzling montage he goes through a decade’s worth of costume changes in thirty seconds as his piano spins and throws off a ring of fireworks.
The film it reminded me most of wasn’t another musical but another biopic of a musician that played fast and loose with perception and how making art can alter it: AMADEUS. Both films only use a great musician’s documented life as a starting point for telling a story that’s interesting, artistically, thematically and emotionally, on its own terms and both get quite surreal as well.
I know Fletcher probably doesn’t want to be reminded about how he was left clearing up someone else’s mess but it’s only when compared to distinctive projects like this that it becomes clear how far short BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY fell. It was just so mechanical. It didn’t seem interested what made its subject tick, just what he could do. This is the warts-and-all examination of a superstar we want. Sex and drugs and rock and roll and then some.
It’s appropriate that the film’s final musical number is “I’m Still Standing”, complete with Egerton cleverly inserted into the iconic music video. That’s Elton speaking to us as a survivor of a bad time in his life. It was also essentially Egerton’s audition piece, he having already performed it as an animated Gorilla in SING.
Rocketman demonstrates mastery of sound, colour and movement throughout, much like Elton himself. This is without a doubt Dexter Fletcher’s strongest film, one of the most engrossing and entertaining biopics around and a feelgood new musical to boot. This is the kind of film that Freddie Mercury deserved. SSP