The tile caption for Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is clear enough – “Taron Egerton is Elton John”. It’s a simple caption, indicating a performer who’s focused on bringing a role to life. The same of course could be said about Reginald Dwight, that slightly portly kid from England with an ear for music who had to reinvent himself decade after decade, inhabiting his larger-than-life persona as he conquered the world.
For many, the decades-long career of Sir Elton is easy enough to take for granted, but in the ’70s, particularly in the U.S., he was preposterously successful, claiming some 5% of the total global musical revenue. He made a fortune for himself and those around him, all while struggling with his own demons that can be traced to his childhood.
It’s easy enough to say what the film is not – it’s not just another biopic with music smattered about. It’s an outright musical, using the heightened form to tell a story that adheres far more to emotional truth than biographical precision. Other films may toy with the storyline to make for a more palatable narrative, but here the twists and turns are even more deliberate, reshaping facts in order to more elegantly present the core of what exists underneath.
Musically, the famous Bernie Taupin/Elton John songs are also rearranged, changing tempo and arrangements throughout. In almost every case, they evoke the original more than mimic, allowing lyrical content to shine a bit better, and the performances to tie even stronger the words the events transpiring on screen.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Elton has always been a cypher. His most emotive and emotional moments lyrically have been him simply singing his partner’s words – EJ sings as Bernie cannot – and as such, most of the musically biographical and thematically consistent elements are actually those of Taupin rather than John. The filmmakers wisely wrestle some of these back onto the core story line, in turn recontextualizing the songs in a way that works fabulously.
The pomp and circumstance of John’s glam phase is evoked through stellar production design, but even here there are adjustments and aggrandizements that are in keeping with the heightened world of the musical. A pedantic few could criticize the specifics – take the famous Troubadour gig in 1970, where touring with a newly formed trio of drummer Nigel Olsen and bassist Dee Murray they took up residency in this famous L.A. club. On screen, there are four band members, and this is Elton’s big break – in actuality he was touring his second record, and already garnering the attention of his idols like Bob Dylan, Leon Russel and Neil Diamond (who introduced the musician to the crowd).
Does it matter that there are four instead of three musicians on stage in the movie? Of course not. This is but one of dozens upon dozens of alterations made to fact. But more than that, did the audience truly levitate? Was Elton flying, Super Man-like, when captured in that famous photo? Again, of course not. But that’s certainly what it must have felt like in that August, 1970 audience, to feel the entire world of Rock and Roll changing in front of their eyes. With a tour captured live-to-tape in a New York studio a few months later as 17-11-70, this is truly one of the most iconic of live shows ever recorded. And here, in a span of a few scenes and with the flourish of modern filmmaking, Fletcher and his collaborators bring us into the idea of the event rather than worrying about all the needless trivia and specifics.
Dexter Fletcher’s vision for the story is an intoxicating one, and especially for the first two thirds, it succeeds almost flawlessly. The casting of Egerton is indeed inspired – his round face beautifully inhabits the costumes, but it’s his powerful voice that most elevates the performance. He’s often singing direct to record rather than via playback, and this kind of direct intimacy between image and song always helps in remarkable ways. The rest of the cast, including Jamie Bell as Taupin, Richard Madden as manager/lover John Reid, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Sheila, Elton/Reg’s mom, provide a strong foundation for Egerton to play off of.
But there’s no mistaking this is Egerton’s show, and he shines like he never has. He imports the most important part – a sardonic air mixed with awkwardness that results in this implausible, infectious charisma – that most shapes Elton’s affect during this era. The film doesn’t dance around from the more ribald aspects of cavorting and other indulgences. Reid/Elton relationship is particularly well drawn – Madden never makes Reid into a villain, but simply another gorged on the success of the time. Kudos as well to Stephen Graham as Dick James, one of those actors who seems to make everything he does just that much better with his presence.
There are tiny tidbits to sate the most incessant of fan – look to a Taron’s gorgeous rendition of the underloved “Amoreena” from Tumbleweed Connection placed in for mood, for example, or the fact that the album they chronologically skip over, 1969’s “Empty Sky”, is the one handed to EJ to sign.
All of this coheres into a film that’s certainly respectful of all these elements but free to make the storyline its own. This is no hagiography of Elton – he’s often a right bastard throughout – nor is it some grand reconciliation or apology. It’s at his heart a true celebration, one unafraid to talk about the bad with the good, the faulty notes with the soaring ones.
The last act of the film suffers from trying to do too much in too little time, as the rise of the talent is far more interesting than the later missteps that simply accumulated for years and years. It’s unclear how this could have been rectified, but it does little to tamp down enthusiasm for what came before.
Rocketman, at its best, feels like listening to this masterful music. It’s far more a work of emotion than narratively ambitious, taking the usual tropes of the rock-biopic for granted and adding its own flourishes. Nor does the film ever completely lose itself in fantasy, maintaining this delicate balance between the heightened, theatrical world and the bare, raw emotions of those involved.
In the end, despite these few reservations, Rocket Man truly does soar, and I think it’s gonna be a long long time before we have a celebration of Elton quite this cinematically rich and enjoyable.
/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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