Hot off the heels of the staggering success of the Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody comes the next British musical star to have his story told on the big screen. Reginald Kenneth Dwight or Elton John as he likes to be called these days.
Just something I quickly want to cover before I get into this. I should address is a slight problem I had with Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s rating. As I said in my review of the film, it was only rated 12A here in the U.K. which meant it couldn’t show some stronger elements of Freddie’s outrageous life. As much as I enjoyed the flick, it did feel a little diluted. Well Rocketman has a higher rating here, it’s been given a 15 certificate which means while still not exactly ‘adult’ (which would be an 18) it’s still a little more risque and can therefore delve into the slightly darker and more serious side of Elton John’s life… and it does. Elton John himself insisted they make it honestly and not to sugar coat anything. Rocketman is the first major Hollywood film to depict gay sex on screen for instance.
Rocketman is being billed as ‘a true fantasy’ or ‘musical fantasy’, so it’s not strictly meant to be a 100% factual telling of the life of Elton John. Then again, movie biopics never are, they all blend fact with fiction but Rocketman seems to be the only one to actually make that tit-bit part of it’s promotion, it’s telling you before you see it that it’s not going to be a 100% factual telling of the life of Elton John. It’s a fantasy, and fantasy is the perfect word to use too.
I think it best to start this thing by looking at the main cast.
Jamie Bell plays Elt’s long time friend and lyric writer Bernie Taupin. He gives a subtle and quiet performance to counteract the hyperactive and overbearing style of Elton John. Their friendship really comes through in the film. There’s a good chunk of the flick where Taupin is absent as he feels he’s had enough of the high-life and goes back home (he should have stayed on the farm, should have listened to his old man) when Elt hits it big time. For those scenes and that part of the flick, Bell is really missed as the calming element to all the madness going on around and when he does return, that duality of two leads really works.
In the part of Elt’s manager/lover, John Reid is Richard Madden. A smooth but still rather nasty piece of work who would be more than happy seeing Elton John in a grave. As he says in the flick “I’ll still be collecting my 20% long after you’ve killed yourself.” They most definitely played Reid up to be much more of a villain than he was in real life. According to history, he was never a angel but was he ever really as evil as shown in the film? Anyway, it’s another good performance and one Madden seemed to enjoy playing.
Bryce Dallas Howard plays Elt’s mother, Sheila. If you know your Elton John history, then you already know they didn’t really get on, they didn’t speak to each other for years and only made up shorty before her death in 2017. The distance between the two is also shown in the film. It’s a strange performance as Shelia is never depicted as ice cold toward her son, but she’s definitely cold. There’s a scene where Elt comes out as gay over the phone to his mother and her response is pretty heartbreaking. It’s a subdued performance and perhaps the only one on the film I’m not quite sure on liking it or not.
Then of course we have to cover Elt’s father, Stanley played by Steven Mackintosh. Now this is an ice cold performance. He never hugs his son, never pays him much or any attention and Stanley walks out and leaves when Elt is still a boy. The relationship shown in the film is horrendous and yet Elt never gives up. One of my favourite scenes in the film comes later when he tries to connect to his father once he’s become famous. I’m not going to spoil it here but the acting between Mackintosh as the father and Egerton as Elton John is tremendous. I don’t know, maybe I saw something deeper between the two as my father walked out when I was a kid too. Maybe that relationship shown in the film hit a nerve with me?
Yes I’ve saved the best for last… Taron Egerton as Elton John. If Rami Malek can (deservedly) win an Oscar for playing Freddie Mercury then Egerton deserves at least two. I need to get this out of the way first, Egerton singing sounds nothing like Elton John… but he was never meant to. The man himself advised Egerton not to copy him and do his own thing. And yes, that is Egerton actually singing too (unlike Malek), no he doesn’t sound like Elt… but the boy can sing and sing well too. As for the acting? Well he knocks it out of the park. From the first moment you see him in the film make a big entrance, the way he strides down the corridor is Elton John, the mannerisms are there and he has the smile down to a T… with a little help to get the gap-teeth right. Taron Egerton IS Elton John.
Oh, seeing as I like to throw in little bits of trivia when I wrote these things, how about this? When Taron Egerton was trying to get into RADA, he sang Your Song which helped him kick-start his career. Then he sang I’m Still Standing as a talented gorilla in the animated film Sing. Elton John appeared in the film Kingsman: The Golden Circle which starred Egerton. Seems Taron Egerton and Elton John have a link going back years.
I guess a quick synopsis of what the flick is about would be nice.
Obviously it’s about the life of Elton John, but like Bohemian Rhapsody before it, it’s not a full life story. What Rocketman tells is the story of Elt’s early life and career. It concentrates on young Reggie as a boy in Pinner, Middlesex, his strained relationship with his parents and him growing up in the mid 1950s, his becoming a pianist and forming his first band as a teenager, meeting Bernie Taupin for the first time in the 60s. To Elt’s early success, eventual worldwide fame and his alcohol/drug abuse through the 70s to him finally becoming sober in the 80s. The film is told in flashback as it opens at the end with Elt checking himself into rehab in the 80s where he begins to tell his life story. We see his life unfold trough the decades inter-cut with Elt in the 80s pretty much confessing his sins.
As I said earlier, this is not a straight up biopic, it’s a musical fantasy. The best way to describe this would be with one of the earlier scenes with older Elton John from the 80s signing a duet of The Bitch Is Back with his younger-self from the 50s in the neighbourhood he grew up in with all his neighbours signing and dancing in the street. That’s the kind of films this is, where people will just spontaneously burst into song and dance to further to story. With a standard biopic like Bohemian Rhapsody, as great as the music is… it’s just music in a film. With Rocketman, the music is part of the storytelling, the songs and lyrics used take on a very different meaning when paired with the images on screen. It’s not just music in Rocketman, it’s musical storytelling and it’s really effective too. I have a much deeper understanding of Taupin’s words after watching this film.
And the flick is full of these kind of moments where things are not 100% true to life. I mean there’s a scene where ten year old Elt in the 1950s sings the song I Want Love with his family, a song that won’t exist for another forty odd years until 2001. Again, it doesn’t make sense in regards to the timeline it’s completely anachronistic but within the context of the film itself and the bit of the story being told at the point, it makes perfect sense and is logical. It’s a musical fantasy and it’s marvellous.
There are some truly amazing moments in the picture both from the music and just good old fashioned acting. The Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting) number of the film where young boy Elt transitions into young man Elt is great. A stunning musical number with a lot of life. People are up and dancing, it even turns into a Bollywood thing for a while and is full of energy. Then there’s a scene when adult Elt, now a world famous rock star tries to reconcile with his absent farther… which doesn’t end happily and the acting is sublime, no singing, no dancing, just pure top-notch acting. Two very different sides of the same coin. Rocketman is a strange cocktail of several elements that most probably shouldn’t really work together and yet they do.
The mixing of fact and fiction is masterfully done. There a scene where Elt attempts suicide (without going into detail), it ends with him sinking to the bottom of his swimming pool where he sees his ten year old self and starts a Rocket Man duet. Now the suicide attempt was real, it happened in 1975… but I’m pretty certain that Elt singing a duet of Rocket Man underwater with his younger self didn’t actually happen. This is that mixing of fact and fiction that works and the film is full of it. Just after the suicide attempt, Elt is quickly dressed and pushed out on stage to perform. It all happens within a minute or two on screen in a staggering and disturbing dance routine that involves stomach pumping. The thing is that it was not that far removed from reality as only two days after the suicide attempt in 1975, Elt was on stage performing. That was just one of the many moments of pure fantasy and surrealism, I loved it.
There’s a lot of this kind of symbolic stuff through the flick too. As I said before, it starts with Elton John checking himself into rehab in the 80s. And it’s done in typical Elt fashion as he walks in wearing (what can only be described as) an Elvis style jumpsuit in bright orange full of sequins complete with a pair of wings and devil horns. You know what, it’ll be easier to just show you…
That’s the one. Completely lavish and over the top, pure Elt. Anyway, as the film progresses and as it jumps from the flashbacks of Elt growing up and becoming famous to him sitting in rehab. As he tells his story and as more and more sins get confessed to the group he’s taking to, the costume is slowly removed piece by piece. Showing the death of old Elt and the start the new, clean and sober Elt by the time the film ends. Subtle but clever stuff. Plus there is a moment near the end where ten year old Reginald Dwight gets a hug. Now reading that it pretty meaningless, but watching the film in it’s entirety and understanding that moment – I tell ya, I had a tear in my eye.
As I said before, the film has a 15 certificate, which means more ‘adult’ content can be shown as apposed to Bohemian Rhapsody’s 12A rating. Here drug use is shown as Elt snorts his way through so much cocaine, it would make Tony Montana green with envy. There’s plenty of swearing and if you know of Elt’s infamous tantrums… they’d need to be make him believable. Oh and there is the gay sex scene that is being made a big deal of. It’s really not that big of a deal, at least not for me. It’s not graphic and filmed tastefully too. I really do not see why others are kicking up such a fuss… it’s just a sex scene, a very tame one at that. Let me put it this way, I watched the film with my Mum and when we talked about the film afterwards, neither of us talked about the sex scene. Not because we were embarrassed but because it was nothing. The music, the acting, the story – now that’s worth talking about. The sex scene? It’s just a sex scene, calm down everyone.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the story as to not spoil anything major but it’s a damn fine piece of film making and well worth watching. Director Dexter Fletcher (who stepped in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody when that flick ran into trouble) is clearly having a ball making this film. It’s bright, vibrant, emotional and funny. As mentioned, it has some sublime surreal moments and when the film keeps drifting into pure fantasy, it’s marvellous. A fairy tale who’s roots are firmly in the real world.
It’s Elton John, of course the music is great… except it not Elton John. This may need a little explaining. Elt doesn’t sing a single note in the film, they don’t use existing recordings either. See, normally in these musical biopics, they have the actor mime to recordings (or a sound-a-like) of the artist they are playing. With Rocketman, that’s not Elton John singing, it’s Taron Egerton singing every note. Every song has been re-recorded with new arrangements to fit the story of movie, so you’ll hear some new versions of classic tunes. Egerton singing Tiny Dancer was a particular highlight for me.
The songs are integral to the story too. As I said before, Bernie Taupin’s lyrics have a much deeper meaning when the songs are used in the film. I don’t think I’ll ever listen to Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road the same way again.
Rocketman is superb. The story can be summed up pretty easily. It’s a film about a boy/man just wanting to be loved… that’s about it. But it’s how this tale is put together that makes it stand out. The acting is sublime, the music is astounding and the directing both crazy and wonderful.
When we came out of the cinema, Mum said to me that she thought Rocketman was far better than Bohemian Rhapsody. I don’t think I can honestly make that claim because for me they are way too different to compare. Yeah they are both biopics of English rock stars but they are very different species of the same animal. I think both films are amazing but for very different reasons.
You know, I think I managed to put my finger on best how to describe this flick, you can’t just call it a biopic as it’s much more than that. It’s one of those classic ‘rock opera’ films from the 70s. The Rocky Horror Show, Pink Floyd – The Wall, Tommy (which featured Elton John). All those crazy and experimental flicks that told amazing stories through music… that’s what Rocketman is. Or I guess I could just stick with the promotion of the film itself – it’s a ‘musical fantasy’.
Rocketman is a film that’ll stay with me for a “long long time…”
Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!
– Elton John