I would be lying if I called myself a “fan” of Elton John. I have nothing against the man. I know a few songs here and there — “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man” for example — but it was a boat I missed and I always felt too overwhelmed to swim after it because of the sheer amount of music in his discography.
That being said, when I saw the first trailer for his musical biopic, “Rocketman,” I was intrigued right away. It seemed to be interestingly shot and have a lot of fantastical elements that led me to believe that it could be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone, not just fans. I’m happy to report that this is an overwhelmingly true statement. There’ no doubt that fans of the revolutionary singer-songwriter will get the most out of the experience, but there is a lot there for everyone else too.
The film stars Taron Egerton (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”) as Elton John (born Reginald Dwight) as he recounts the highs and lows of his life, from playing music to sold-out crowds in gaudy costumes to the turmoil of addiction, eating disorders and coming to terms with his sexuality. Jamie Bell (“Billy Elliot”) plays John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin and Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones”) plays John Reid, John’s boyfriend and manager. They star alongside Bryce Dallas Howard (“Jurassic World,” “Black Mirror,”) who plays John’s mother, Sheila.
“Rocketman” is a film with a large range of emotion, staging, acting and pacing such that a single unfortunate performance could ruin the delicate balance it strikes. Luckily there are none to be found.
Egerton knocks it out of the park. This film shows Elton John at his darkest, most vulnerable moments and it’s the most range I’ve seen from Egerton to date. Not to mention the musical aspects of his performance blew me away. The casting directors were lucky to find someone who so closely resembles Elton John with a big enough name and who can also sing well. Though Egerton mimics John’s trademarked vocal stylings, it managed to never feel like an impression or disingenuous. The emotions portrayed through both script and song were distinct and motivated.
Though Egerton’s performance stands out, with him being on screen almost always, the rest of the cast was also brilliant. Both Bell and Madden brought interesting facets to their roles as John’s closest personal relationships. Madden managed to be both charming and sinister in a dastardly way I couldn’t help but be encapsulated by. As much as Egerton’s vocal performances shined, vocals were strong from the whole cast.
The movie plays out more like a musical than a biopic, much to its benefit. In many ways it succeeds where last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” failed. The focus was not on the creation of the music but on using the music to tell a story both visually and thematically. Though the tracklist worked its way through John’s hits in a somewhat chronological order, the music was used to attempt to portray characters’ emotions as they sang it. It wasn’t just Egerton singing song after song, some songs were made into duets or big group numbers that played out like conversations and gave way to some of the most interesting moments of cinematography in the film.
Early on, especially, the movie has unsurprising similarities to “Billy Elliott,” a musical film that Elton John had a hand in creating and wrote the music for. The film centered on a young boy in Northern England wanting to dance despite his father’s wishes, whereas John wanted to play the piano and also had a strained relationship with his distant father.
The whole movie is impressively shot, edited and mixed (always crucial with a musical,) but the musical moments certainly stand out. These are when the film fully incorporates the surreal, fantastical elements of its visual style. Reality often gave way to cool moments like John and the crowd floating at his first performance of “Crocodile Rock” at The Troubadour in LA or John navigating his way through a riotous crowd whilst singing “Border Song.” But it also took its time with some slower, lonelier moments like with “Tiny Dancer” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” These moments are some of the best in the film so I don’t want to spoil them but they’re all stunning and instill a sense of wonder and magic in the audience.
The characters are all multi-dimensional and compelling. Oftentimes side characters can fall by the wayside in films like this but the emphasis on John’s search for love in his life made his dynamics with those around him engaging. I also enjoyed the portion of the story of his life they chose to portray. The film centers on the early effects of fame on John’s life, both positive and negative. As addiction and loneliness eat away at him, we are brought on the journey he endured, which comes to a conclusion with his resolution to get sober. Script writer Lee Hall (“Billy Elliott”) cut out this window in his life that brings us on a specific and fulfilling journey.
It’s a special film that earns its place in the best ranks of jukebox musical films and musicals in general. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if we saw this as a Broadway show in a matter of years. For those who aren’t sure if it’s for them for whatever reason, I promise there is something great here for you.