Written by: Lee Hall
Directed by: Dexter Fletcher
Featuring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, and Bryce Dallas Howard
Bernie Taupin: “Don’t you want to just sing without this ridiculous paraphernalia?”
Elton John: “People don’t pay to see Reg Dwight! They pay to see ELTON JOHN!”
There has rarely been a movie like this week’s rock biopic “Rocketman” (2019) that attempts to capture a feeling of growing up and becoming one of the major figured in popular music over the past fifty years, this is less a traditional biopic, more a rock musical that is not only R-rated but at least attempts to address some of the more colourful and scandalous parts of Elton John’s early life and career. “Rocketman” could also assist from the huge box office, as well as awards success that last years “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) reaped although other than the subject there could not be two more movies that are completely different in terms of the way truth and fiction are portrayed to an audience through very different narratives that make the focal point the music, not necessary the person about whom the movie is primarily based on. In this case “Rocketman” does make Elton John the focus but frames his story through his own fantasy thereby making the truth malleable which means there are events in this movie that never happened or occurred differently other than what we see onscreen, which is an authentic device that can be forgiven.
Of course, like “Bohemian Rhapsody”, this new movie has an X factor that will play a large part in its success, that is the music that has permeated popular culture since the early 1970s which means that audiences that view the movie will recognise one of the major framing devices. I believe that the very defining feature as well as the reason for “Bohemian Rhapsody” to be the global success it was came down to audiences loving the music, it was not only an entry point but something that was engaging. Whilst Rocketman” does not have any of the actual magic of a tune like ‘We will rock you’, ‘We are the champions’, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Radio Ga Ga’ it does have some truly beautiful lyrics unlike many songs before or since, like John’s music it is also this movies strongest asset.
“Rocketman” also has many more elements that lends to its success, two of these are director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall who have been around for quite some time, Fletcher firstly as an actor and now an accomplished director and Hall who has been behind some very good movies, but his breakout was the international success, “Billy Elliott” (2000). What is unique with this movie is how the director has embraced the screenplay as well as the music to deliver something that is unique, a story that is contained to mostly John’s rise as well as the many mistakes he made through to an obvious close in his battle with sobriety that marked a new beginning for him. Fletcher uses all his skill and the technique he has learned with his previous efforts in creating a movie based around music in “Sunshine on Leith” (2013), using a true story in “Eddie the Eagle” (2015) as well as using comedy to hit home serious points throughout a narrative that at times delves into fantasy. It is not an understatement to make the point that it seems like this is the movie that Fletcher has been working towards his entire life.
“Rocketman” tells the story of Elton John’s life, from his early years in Pinner, Middlesex as a prodigy at the Royal Academy of Music, through his influential and enduring musical partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, as well as his struggles with depression, substance abuse, and acceptance of his sexual orientation.
To portray Elton John as well as really sing many of his signature hits would have initially been a dauting task but to say they sound their man in Taron Egerton is an understatement. Egerton has been making movies for some time now, but to think that he had a performance in him that is seen in “Rocketman”, few could have seen this coming. Not only does he inhabit the true person whilst not doing a pale imitation, he also sings the songs himself which in a two-hour movie that is mostly music is no small task. This is a movie that is loaded with stunning performance such as Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s mother, Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin not forgetting Steven Mackintosh as John’s Father, Stephen Graham as Dick James and a huge amount of others. This is the first movie that I have seen Bryce Dallas Howard appear in where I have completely believed who she is appearing as, here she has built a character from the ground up, completely inhabiting it as well as giving a tour de force performance that I believe will be awarded in the year to come. The other stand out is Jamie Bell as Taupin who has the most chemistry with Egerton as well as the most screen time. Ever since his breakout performance in “Billy Elliott” Bell has proven himself to be a versatile performer but here he plays a true person with originality, spontaneity as well as singing which again is something to be admired.
Even though this is a movie that defies its genre as well as dipping many tine into fantasy the events of the film are told in flashback with the frame narrative of Elton in an alcoholics anonymous meeting. One of the aspects of this narrative is how it legitimises the idea of recovery, analysis as well as the nature versus nurture elements that come into play, also the old adage of you can’t pick your family but you can pick your friends. It also delves into the changing nature of what it means to be gay and how that has changed in terms of the reflection of that with society in general. A large part of the narrative is also given over to the music of John to reflect what is occurring in any given scene which may seem an obvious thing to do, but the fact that this happens is a nod to the great song writing that was accurate at the time of writing to show what John and to a lesser extent Taupin were going through at the time.
In terms of authenticity what makes this movie different to other biopics is that for a large part of the running time we are living a fantasy, that is we are inside John’s mind, everything is interpreted through his filter. What this means is that events as well as relationships and any meaning can be warped but without artistic loss which is something that does not happen with other biopics, of musicians or otherwise. This kind of distinction only assist when evaluating the merits of this movie especially when there can be an argument about what the movie means.
Whilst I am not the biggest Elton John fan I not only loved this movie but thought it was a vast improvement over “Bohemian Rhapsody” in many ways. It not only spoke to a deeper truth but it explored the same kinds of themes but in a much more natural way that explains much in the way John lived his life with a burden that few can really understand. It also illustrates mental health in a way that says its ok to ask for help no matter who you are, that driving people away is something humans do, but we also forgive as well as welcome new experiences that can shape not only our future but others as well. This is a very positive movie experience that offers audiences no matter if they are fans of John’s music or not something memorable in almost every way imaginable.
The Bitch Is Back (Introduction)
I Want Love
Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)
Thank You For All Your Loving
Take Me To The Pilot
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart – interlude
Pinball Wizard – Interlude
Bennie and the Jets
Don’t Let The Sun Go Down – Interlude
Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word 19. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
I’m Still Standing
(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again