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The Not-So-Real Elton John

Taron Egerton
Taron Egerton
Universal Pictures
 99 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByTate Taylor
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis    

Sometimes, similar yet completely independent movies are released at the same time and become indelibly linked in the public consciousness. In 2012, the Oval Office came under terrorist attack twice in a matter of months in Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. Fifteen years earlier, the stakes were even higher as the Earth was threatened in 1998 by an asteroid in Armageddon and a comet in Deep Impact (fortunately, we’re still here). Now, we have another such confluence of cinematic vehicles. Less than a year after Rami Malek won an Oscar for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, Taron Egerton plays another gay, addicted, self-destructive rock icon, Elton John, in Rocketman. While the subject matter of the two films is similar in many ways (even sharing a main character, rock promoter John Reid, who managed both Mercury’s band Queen and Elton John), they are stylistically quite different. And, despite the Oscar attention lavished on Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman is a more entertaining film.


Anyone expecting (or fearing) that Rocketman would be a new version of Bohemian Rhapsody with a different headliner will be very disappointed. The two are fundamentally different types of films. Bohemian Rhapsody is a biography of a musician and a musical group, replete with scenes depicting many of Queen’s best-known songs being performed in concert, in nightclubs, or in recording studios. Rocketman, on the other hand, is a traditional stage musical brought to the screen, with characters breaking into song as a way of advancing the storyline. Admittedly, that approach takes some getting used to, but director Dexter Fletcher (who also served as the uncredited, de facto director of much of Bohemian Rhapsody) manages the transitions quite well.


The audience realizes it’s in for quite a different experience from the norm in the very first scene of Rocketman in which John, dressed in one of his typical outlandish outfits, that of a devil, walks away from a concert performance and directly into an addiction support group meeting while still in costume. John’s participation in the support group serves as the film’s framing device. The film then follows John’s life and career since his troubled childhood with a dysfunctional family. His distant (and soon divorced) father (Steven Mackintosh) belittles his musical efforts, while his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) is too self-centered to really care about him. Despite the lack of parental support, John starts performing in pubs and eventually becomes keyboardist for a band.


John eventually auditions for a record label, and, because he doesn’t have much of a flair for writing lyrics to go with his catchy melodies, the label president sets him up with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). The two prove perfectly symbiotic, and John soon goes to the United States, where his appearance at the famous Troubadour night club is a big hit. As his career begins to take off, he meets John Reid (Richard Madden), who soon becomes his manager and his lover. John also starts drinking and using drugs heavily, and his career skyrockets, but not his ability to deal with fame and his inner demons.


The story of a musician giving in to drugs and alcohol is an old one in Hollywood (and in real life) and played out recently both in Bohemian Rhapsody and the entirely fictional A Star Is Born. The real Elton John served as a technical advisor on Rocketman and, to his credit, did not insist on sugarcoating or glossing over either his addiction or his homosexuality (a weakness of Bohemian Rhapsody). Nor is Taron Egerton always particularly likable in the part. As a result, Rocketman feels the most realistic depiction of addiction of any of the three films, despite its fantasy elements.


That doesn’t mean, of course, that audiences should look to Rocketman for a completely realistic depiction of addiction. It’s a musical that adheres to the usual convention of the genre that the dramatic scenes should segue naturally into musical numbers. So, when a nearly incoherent John stumbles into his swimming pool, the near-drowning is transformed into an underwater dance routine that could have come from an Esther Williams film a half century earlier. Also, cynical as it sounds, John survived his problems and has been sober for over 25 years. In typical Hollywood fashion, stories of people who stay sober aren’t nearly as interesting as tales of those who stumble. Still, in comparison with other musical biographies about real-life stars such as Jersey Boys, Rocketman is considerably grittier.


As an addiction drama, Rocketman resembles a better-than-average R-rated version of an old TV movie of the week. However, its greatest asset, of course, is the enormous Elton John discography available for the soundtrack (much the same as Bohemian Rhapsody cashed in on Queen songs). Taron Egerton doesn’t sound exactly like Elton John, but he doesn’t try to mimic John either. He’s got a good singing voice and the stage mannerisms down pat (he’s actually performed duets in public with John). The script wisely doesn’t attempt to be chronologically accurate in its portrayal of various songs. Instead of having the tunes appear in chronological order, director Fletcher matches the song to the mood of the scene. One of the best examples is a rousing dance number in which a teenaged John begins singing “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” in a pub, after which the camera follows John, accompanied by backup dancers, as he enters a nearby amusement park and emerges as the adult Taron Egerton (see clip below).


Hollywood is increasingly serving as a breeding ground for Broadway musicals, as this year’s Tony Awards again demonstrate, with Beetlejuice and Tootsie vying for honors. Rocketman practically writes itself as a stage production, with many numbers already choreographed (admittedly, watching Elton John levitate in some scenes may be tricky to duplicate in the theater). The production numbers in Rocketman are easily the equal of anything on the screen in the last few years, and it’s not just Egerton doing the singing. Instead, both Jamie Bell and Richard Madden contribute their own numbers (Bell’s performance of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is very well done). In rating a movie, I’ve always felt that it’s the overall effect that’s most important, rather than considering it solely as a drama simply because it contains some serious subject matter. On that basis, Rocketman is one of the most enjoyable, entertaining movies of the year so far, thanks in large part to the soundtrack and performances. It’s likely to suffer come Oscar time (except for an almost surefire nomination for Best Costuming) due to voter burnout after nominating Bohemian Rhapsody last year, but audiences will instead be feeling the love tonight.

In this clip, Taron Egerton and company perform "Saturday Night."

Read other reviews of Rocketman: 

Rocketman (2019) on IMDb