'Rocketman' blasts off in a joyous celebration of the life and music of Elton John
By Andrea Thompson
Just as “Wonder Woman” was constantly on my mind during “Captain Marvel,” so too was the incredibly lackluster “Bohemian Rhapsody” during the excellent “Rocketman,” the rockstar biopic we've been waiting for.
Even if this loving, R-rated tribute to the life and music of Elton John has many familiar beats, it gives us a song worth remembering. Taron Egerton plays the celebrated singer, and he relishes every minute of it, diving into this role for all it's worth. It helps also that “Rocketman” somewhat subverts expectations, as Egerton bursts through the sparkling movie title in the kind of flamboyant orange suit we all came here for, striding triumphantly down a hall...and right into rehab rather than the expected concert performance. Elton is here to treat a variety of addictions, and him recounting to the group just how he got here is an interesting device.
“Rocketman” also knows we came here for the music, and it takes Elton John's iconic staples and transforms them into a dizzying musical. The opening number “The Bitch is Back” lets us know just what we're in for, which sees Elton dancing with the boy he was in the land of their childhood, both of them bright spots in their muted surroundings. It's a stylized intro reminiscent of “La La Land's” opening number, only the remainder of “Rocketman” doesn't disappoint.
Elton claims to have had a happy childhood, yet his roots are a kind of unhappy cliché, with a cold, distant father (Steven Mackintosh) and a mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) who tended to favor martini glasses that refilled constantly. Luckily, Elton apparently doesn't just have a talent for music, but a preternaturally gift. And the young man he grows up to be is the kind of natural performer who can transform a depressing English pub into a wonderland. He quickly progresses from those pubs to a backup player for soul singers making tours in the U.K., and is then quickly snapped up by a record company.
He also meets his lifelong songwriting partner, friend, and platonic soulmate, who “Rocketman” is also a tribute to: Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Their friendship becomes the film's great love story, lasting throughout Elton's much publicized struggles with addiction, though the film mostly skips over his bulimia and barely devotes any time to his relationships with women. The root of the singer's problems is the usual one, an absence of love Elton never felt he deserved, yet desperately needed. He spends much of his life hating himself for his sexuality, using his persona a shield against his very real issues, and is only able to confront them when he literally walks away from a concert and into rehab.
Such struggles generally mean you look for love in exactly the wrong places, which is how Elton's toxic relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden) who became his manager, began. Egerton isn't the only one relishing this. After still being known for his dreamboat roles as Robb Stark in “Game of Thrones” and Prince Kit in “Cinderella,” Madden is clearly having a ball being a slimy, unapologetic bad guy (in his natural accent no less) who exploits Elton and places his value as a performer above his health and sanity.
The triumphant, jukebox musical approach of “Rocketman” had some at the screening dancing in the aisles while it also managed to capture much of the process and dynamics which go into creating songs and music. Even some of the liberties the movie takes with the truth meshes with the stylistic choices, which has Elton literally lifting his first LA audience off their feet in the performance that would make him an overnight success. While Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury just barely kept “Bohemian Rhapsody” afloat, Egerton swirls in the beautiful rhythms of “Rocketman,” complementing its unapologetic embrace of everything that made Reggie Dwight become the beloved Elton John in the first place.