Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
In the first twenty minutes of the musical “Rocketman” - a film that doesn’t like to stray too far from the cliched biopic formula - I knew it would immediately draw comparisons to recent award winning film, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and if they have anything in common, it’s that each film has a commanding central performance.
While I thought Rami Malek’s portrayal of Freddy Mercury was commendable in an otherwise one note film that lacked any emotional depth behind the man and the music, Taron Egerton taking on the mannerisms and physicality of the iconic Elton John is far more impressive, and Egerton also has a dozy of a film to back him up, a musical fantasy that literally floats on air - actually uses its talented cast and offers stunning new context to beloved songs we’ve known for decades.
“Rocketman” can move quick at times, but it’s stacked with one creative invention after another, each song (all classics of course) are presented with eye-popping visual and emotional gravitas, all interwoven to help progress the story of how a young lad from Middlesex called Reggie could go on to sell 300 million records. Some of the heavier musical sequences could rub audiences the wrong way, but each moment feels earned and gives Sir John the larger-than-life treatment he deserves.
It covers a vast majority of the rockstars life, starting from his early and formative years to middle-aged rehab (where the film chooses its starting point) - and has to race through some key milestones. But thankfully, the music is left full those voids. For example, a brief marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) is hazed over, but again the music saves that passage and we start to understand why a lonely man whose mother tells him “You’ll never be properly loved” would get involved in an unwanted marriage.
The marriage isn’t so much important as is the relationship with Elton’s parents, specifically his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard in the films only significant female character) and how that fueled his constant self-doubt and uncertainty. Crazy to think that someone as big, boisterous, outgoing, talented and obnoxious as Elton John could face insecurities and in the wrong hands this portrayal could feel one dimensional, but in Taron Egerton’s dedicated and committed performance we are given texture, and witness a genius and diva wrestling with his inner demons and trying ro make peace with his inner Reggie.
Unlike “Rhapsody” - “Rocketman” isn’t afraid to lay all the cards on the table and go for an authentic representation of the man’s life. Director Dexter Fletcher (who, ironically, was brought on to finish “Rhapsody” after Bryan Singer was fired) doesn’t set the drugs, sex, and booze to the side in favor of a hallmark version - John has stated he never lead a “PG13 life” and “Rocketman” goes for the full R rated crescendo tackling explicit issues regarding alcoholism and abuse, as well as the struggles of being gay in the early to mid 1960's.
But the creative solution in “Rocketman” is how Fletcher challenges the notion that bleak and dark topics need to be presented as such. For example when the titular song “Rocketman” is performed, it’s when the icon is attempting suicide and taken to the hospital and turns a horrible situation into a beautiful sequence that’s unexpected in all the best ways. Yet, some of the more down-to-earth moments and relationships - most notably between John’s longtime songwriter and collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell - in a solid performance) - the filmmaker still manages to find the humanity amidst all the fantastical elements.
This all builds to an emotionally soothing climax and Egerton (doing all his own singing) is perfect for the massive, grand, and corny project. “Rocketman” wears its confidence in full sequin glory, and isn’t afraid to take risks and reach for the stars. Some moments are more frustrating than others, but it’s the commitment to the flashy eccentricity of John’s personality that brings everything back down to earth.