(2019, 121 min)
Country: United Kingdom, United States
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Studio: Paramount Pictures
As flashy and colorful as it's subject, this musical biopic chronicles the early life and career of Reginald Dwight, better known to the world as Elton John (played brilliantly by Taron Egerton). Visually stunning performances of some of Elton's best-loved songs are used to tell the story of a rise to rock and roll greatness that includes addiction, depression and complex personal and professional relationships.
Dexter Fletcher's "Rocketman" is yet another biopic about the highs and lows of being a rock star. Elton John's life follows a narrative arc that is familiar: a musically gifted boy from working-class England is inspired by the freedom that is evoked by American rock music. John's dissatisfaction with his own life pushes him to great success but also makes him susceptible to the temptations of a decadent lifestyle; his drug habit ruins his personal relationships and threatens his career; he ultimately confronts his demons and stages a comeback and his new, healthy attitude is mirrored by renewed professional success. Roll titles telling us where Elton is now. Whenever the John's family life or struggles with stardom begin to get too dark, it gives us a colorful, energetic musical sequence and wonderful song-and-dance scenes, built around some of John's most well-known songs and enhanced by CG effects that express the characters' submerged feelings, the transition between Elton's childhood and adulthood and the performative decadence of mid-'70s glam rock to that of mid-'70s sex. Their main effect, though, is to give the film the quality of something of a karaoke stage musical: Even as Elton nearly overdoses on prescription meds, we get to enjoy his songs. As a musical, "Rocketman" distracts us from its superficiality.
In between the musical sequences, Elton (Taron Egerton), born Reginald Dwight, is portrayed as the unhappy genius who is loved insufficiently by his selfish mother (Bruce Dallas Howard) and not at all by his stiff-upper-lipped father (Steven Mackintosh). He wants to be somewhere and someone else. He's gifted at the piano and able to reproduce complex pieces upon hearing them once. This becomes his ticket out of working- class London. Starting as a back-up musician for Motown artists on tour in Britain, John soon breaks out on his own, inventing his new stage name by stealing the first name of one of his bandmates, and taking the last name from John Lennon.
Elton is paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and the two form an instant bond. Together, they write many popular songs, some seemingly inspired by their friendship. There's an ambiguous sexual tension between them, and the film implies that the duo's "Your Song" may have been an outgrowth of this tension-or, at the very least, that the lonely Elton mistook it as such. Elton's ultimately platonic friendship with Bernie is the emotional core of the film and it is seen as the most stable relationship of Elton's life. (The film ends in the '80s, just before the singer would meet his eventual husband, David Furnish.)
The film is open about Elton's love life-including sex. Elton had an intense and predictably doomed romance with music manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but he is driven to booze and drugs because of loneliness and discomfort with himself that goes beyond his sexuality. This simply means that Elton John doesn't fit into to the stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive gay man.
Egerton gives us a performance as the alternatingly sullen and exuberant star, one that fits in perfectly with his loud and campy aesthetic. "Rocketman" is essentially a "featuring the songs of" Broadway musical in the guise of a biopic. The human drama is simply filler designed to propel viewers from one hit to the next. It does not "Rocketman" doesn't deviate from the fundamentals of the pop-music biopic.
"Rocketman." is intended to be something bigger than life, much like its subject, using the basics of John's history to fuel a musical mood for the endeavor, which has the characters often breaking out into song, using the artist's biggest hits as a means to express feelings within. This is not a novel approach, and there's a distinct Broadway vibe to the feature, which serves up unreality and choreography to energize the viewing experience, turning small moments in Elton's screen odyssey into larger efforts of singing and dancing. There's undeniable pop to the movie, which has a few choice moments of explosion, and it soon becomes clear the production isn't going to stick with the advancing years, using whatever John tune is necessary to sell scenes. And the actual trajectory of the artist's career is nothing more than a blur, with "Rocketman" failing to acknowledge albums or even decades, making a clear view of his achievements impossible..
There are really two pictures contained here: Egerton's lived-in universe of and Fletcher's pedestrian take on musical theater. The one with passion is most memorable. The one with the hits rises above the run time.
-- Review by Amos Lassen (http://www.reviewsbyamoslassen.com/)