His Name Is Elton, and He's an Addict: Rocketman
Rocketman is a musical that examines the life of Elton John through his songs. The movie begins with Elton (Taron Egerton) attending an Alcohol Anonymous meeting, admitting his addiction to liquor and many other things. As he and the group try and get to the root of his many addictions, he relates the story of his London upbringing by his mother, Sheila Eileen (Bryce Dallas Howard), and father, Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), neither of whom showed the boy much affection or guidance. His grandmother, Ivy (Gemma Jones), however, saw the talent the boy who grew up as Reginald Dwight displayed on the piano. She helped to get Reggie into classes at the Royal Academy Of Music, where he showed he could play classical pieces once he has heard someone else play them. As a teen, he started playing piano in pubs and clubs in the band Bluesology. When the band provided backing for an American R & B group, its lead singer suggested Reggie change his name and write his own material to get more recognition.
In time, he takes himself to Dick James Music. where he impresses James's employee Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) with his piano playing. When he meets Reggie, Dick James (Stephen Graham) wants to know if he can create more than melodies. When the musician admits a lack of songwriting, Williams teams the musician, who creates his stage name in the office, with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). While his band mates knew he was gay, Bernie learns that, and accepts that from Elton. Once the pair have released some successful material, James sets up an American gig, which increases his popularity. John becomes so popular, he spends the next several years almost entirely focused on his music. Eventually, John Reid (Richard Madden) takes over John's business affairs, as well as one personal one as John's partner. Reid pushed John a great deal, insisting he come out to his parents. Reid also pushed John into keeping his concert commitments. That treatment eventually leads to their party, as well as a suicide attempt by John.
I like that Rocketman is about the music first and the biography second. Much of the biography is true to some phase of John's life, but the movie time frame sets these events in the first 30-35 years of his life, at the height of his chart popularity. For example, John didn't get sober or have a failed marriage until he was older than he's portrayed on screen. John fans will also know that he chose his stage name after Bluesology mates Elton Dean and Long John Baldry, and not John Lennon. The script from Lee Hall, whose credits include Billy Elliot, includes fantasy sequences, giving viewers a bit of John's own perspective, both real and imagined, regarding his ups and downs. The direction comes from Dexter Fletcher, a veteran actor who has, in recent years, branched out into directing with films like Eddie The Eagle. Fletcher's most recent directing work before Rocketman came when he finished directing Bohemian Rhapsody following Bryan Singer's dismissal from the film (though Fletcher did not receive a directing credit for it). Watching Rocketman showed me why Bohemian Rhapsody was so mediocre, in spite of an Oscar-winning performance by Rami Malek. Bohemian Rhapsody was told in a linear fashion, and didn't celebrate the history of Freddy Mercury and Queen as much as it celebrated the songs from that era of the band. Rocketman, like the star performer, is a complete show, sharing and delighting from start to finish.
Unlike Malek, Egerton performs John's material well, and bears a close resemblance to the singer, who appeared with him in the 2017 release Kingsmen: The Golden Circle. Elton is seen as a man of extremes, both good and bad. When the hits come, and he becomes a highly paid entertainer, he can attain any material wealth he wants, yet he needs many years to become openly comfortable with his sexuality. When he's at his best in concert, he holds back nothing. At his first AA meeting, he's clad in one of his outrageous costumes. There, he has to address the personal issues that put him in treatment. Bell also shines as the man who provides the words that Elton sets to music. Bernie provides an openness and acceptance his friend and collaborator that Elton seldom feels. That doesn't mean that Elton's wild habits don't create some friction between the two. I also enjoyed the supporting work, especially from Howard, Madden, Rowe, Graham, and Jones.
Rocketman is the sort of movie that looks like a potential future stage adaptation could follow. The songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin help to fashion the story of a man who has lived life in a big way that most could not dream of doing. That life often masked a litany of issues that Elton could ultimately not keep hidden. Elton John has been one of the flashiest musicians of my lifetime, and he has created many songs that I still enjoy. The movie, like the man, takes flight and shows someone who seeks a way to come to terms with the people whose approval usually eluded him.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Rocketman 3.5 stars. His gift is much more than his songs.
© 2019 Pat Mills