8 / 10
Taron Egerton – Elton John
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Dexter Fletcher did some pick-up work on last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody when Bryan Singer was fired from that troubled production, but Fletcher’s heart was really in his other project – Rocketman, Elton John’s long anticipated biopic. The difference is distinct – this feels very much like a passion project, while Rhapsody was more of a cleaner, family-friendly telling of the Freddie Mercury story through the prism of the surviving members of Queen. One cannot help but make comparisons between the two; they cover similar ground, take place during roughly the same time period, and hit many of the same beats. Bohemian Rhapsody took home a few Oscars, and it’s still very prevalent in the audience’s memory.
But Rocketman is very much the superior film. Fletcher doesn’t want to hold anything back, and neither does Elton John. Ordinarily, biopics produced by their own subject would feel a little disingenuous, but John has always been blunt and direct about his struggles throughout his life, and he doesn’t allow the film to let him off the hook either. For much of Rocketman, Elton John (Taron Egerton as an adult) feels abandoned by the world, and the film doesn’t hesitate to portray him in a less-than-charitable light. But while there is a template that these films tend to stick to, Fletcher manages to break out of that mold in some very intriguing ways.
First, Rocketman is flat out a musical, and not simply a biopic with performed songs. From the opening rendition of “The Bitch Is Back,” with choreographed sequences, extras, and singing, to the various versions of John’s extensive catalog, Fletcher is painting a picture through music that other films like this never attempt. Rocketman puts the Elton John/Bernie Taupin (played in the film by Jamie Bell) songs in a different context than what was perhaps intended when the song was written originally – “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” becomes a full-on musical brawl, while “Rocket Man” turns into a contemplative ballad as John is deep within the throes of addiction. “Honky Cat” is transformed into a spirited romantic number between John and his manager/lover John Reid (Richard Madden). Even when the songs and the context of the scene don’t quite mesh, that doesn’t take away from the vivacious performances of the actors.
Second, this isn’t as family-friendly as many other biopics – this is rock and roll, and the film doesn’t shy away from the seedier aspects or the darker corners. This is a good thing; this is a story that needed to be told without the restraints and sensibilities of a more restrictive view. Rocketman is unashamed about John’s sexuality, and those scenes are full of passion and realism. Often in films portraying gay artists, the filmmakers choose a safer path so as not to offend the audience, but Rocketman isn’t about playing it safe. Elton John is a man of deep feelings and the film isn’t afraid to go to places other films won’t go. Rocketman feels honest without being staid or distant, and it’s a welcome change from more chaste subjects.
The problem lies within the subject; while I’m sure Elton John’s journey feels unique to him, we’ve been down this road before many times in cinema. From rags, to riches, to the perils of fame, drugs, sex, and alcohol, and out again, this is thoroughly explored territory. It’s hard to take scenes set within a rehabilitation center seriously when being reminded of films like Walk Hard (“He needs both more and less blankets!”), or when we see the excesses of John’s lifestyle approach This Is Spinal Tap! proportions. Rocketman never dips into self-parody, because the style and Fletcher’s direction are too charged and too confident for that, but it comes close. Much of the second act, as John tumbles down his rabbit hole, should be very familiar with anyone who has seen a biopic before.
What makes those scenes work is Taron Egerton’s fantastic performance as Elton John. From the very first moments we see him, he embodies him physically, emotionally, spiritually, and then Egerton gives us his own kind of panache. Singing with confidence and dancing throughout every number, Egerton is alive in ways that many actors in biopics fail to reach. While other biopics choose to mimic he artists, Egerton instead goes full-blown song-and-dance man, and he pulls the audience inside the character instead of just showing us a life already lived. Turning Rocketman into a musical was absolutely the right choice for this material. These songs come to life in a way that replicating a stage show doesn’t, and Egerton is more than up for the challenge. It is perhaps unfair to compare Egerton’s work to Rami Malek’s in Rhapsody; the two actors are doing very different performances, but seeing Egerton embrace the role without fear or reservation fills Rocketman with a confidence that Bohemian Rhapsody lacks.
Egerton is supported by fine work from the other actors. Jamie Bell gives Bernie Taupin compassion, a bit of awkwardness, and love. It isn’t difficult to see how John and Taupin are such close friends; I loved how one contentious moment between them as Elton rants and raves, only to conclude with a quick, “I’m sorry.” To hear John in interviews, that feels true to their relationship. Richard Madden as John Reid has a rollicking number with Egerton, and as Reid’s shadier dealings with John come to light, Madden gives us more complexities, even when the material strays into more clichéd territory. Bryce Dallas Howard, as Elton’s mother, also gives a complicated performance, showing us deep emotions in one scene, and becoming cruel and cold in the next. But these supporting actors boost Egerton’s work to the level he needs.
It’s probably too soon to talk awards for Rocketman, but it should be certain that Taron Egerton is in the conversation. Fans of Elton John will find much to love – the costumes, the music, the time period. But Rocketman is at its best when it takes its flights of fantasy, inspired by some of the best crafted songs to have ever been written. When you have that strong a platform to lift off from, it’s no wonder that Rocketman succeeds. Time will tell if this will be embraced to the level of other recent biopics. Until then, how wonderful life is, with Rocketman in the world.