REVIEW: Rocketman (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – Paramount Pictures

The following is a review of Rocketman — Directed by Dexter Fletcher.

From the director of Eddie the Eagle, Dexter Fletcher, who honed his musical skills and ironed out his music biopic missteps early as he completed Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody last year after Singer was fired, comes the Elton John fantasy musical biopic Rocketman that tells the story of how Reginald Dwight (played by Taron Egerton) met lyricist and friend Bernie Taupin (played by Jamie Bell), rebelled against his posh but harsh upbringing, and became the flamboyant superstar now known as Elton John who partied like the best until it almost pushed him over the edge.

Rocketman is self-aggrandizing in moments (mostly in the moments when Elton John appears effortlessly gifted thus simplifying the artistic process) perhaps, but definitely honest when it needs to be even as the film dives into the pool to present you with a more fantastical musical with magical realism to distinguish itself from the rest of the tired musician’s biopic-genre. Because this isn’t your run-of-the-mill musician’s biopic. Egerton and Fletcher’s work is far superior to the mediocre and problematic but momentarily electrifying Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody

That said, the issues I have with Rocketman concern some of the similarities to the Queen-film Fletcher completed last year for which he did not get the appropriate amount of credit. Though Rocketman excels in its sequences with phantasmagorical musical performances of Elton John hits, Fletcher’s Elton John-film is weakest when it adheres to the trite music biopic formula to which Bohemian Rhapsody was frustratingly faithful.

For example, the rise-to-fame montage is a little bit dull and the framing device and rise-and-fall-in-and-out-of-rehab narrative structure are some of the more tired elements of the music biopic formula. The one non-Rhapsody-related issue that I have with the film is that I don’t think the ending of Rocketman is as triumphant as it should’ve been as it shows a music video which hasn’t been recreated, Egerton’s Elton John has just been digitally added into the very obviously dated early 1980s music video footage.

This all should’ve made me incredibly frustrated with Rocketman, as it frustrated me with films like The Dirt or Bohemian Rhapsody recently, but Dexter Fletcher’s, at times, phantasmagorical approach made the rest of the film work for me. Seeing Elton float as the audience moves upward in zero-gravity while he’s performing ‘Crocodile Rock’ on tour in America is one of the more spellbinding moments in the film. Seeing what happens after Elton John hits the homerun on-stage while performing ‘Rocketman,’ as you may have seen in the many trailers, was magical and a genuine joy to watch. Seeing Fletcher’s approach to the underappreciated pop ballad ‘I Want Love,’ was genuinely moving. Fletcher’s film is far less interested in the electricity of an on-stage performance and much more interested in the spellbinding emotion of life standing still that a song may elicit. Rocketman is not so much a traditional biopic as it is a magical realist musical about a rise-and-fall musician’s career, though I wish Fletcher would’ve let himself loose just a little bit more.

Also, even though Elton John and Bernie Taupin certainly have their hands all over — or have had the opportunity to influence the production of — Rocketman, I thought it was genuinely refreshing to see the film be unflinching when it came to showing the parts of the central artist’s life that a film such as Bohemian Rhapsody was very clearly afraid of owning up to. In Bohemian Rhapsody, Mercury’s sexual life was merely hinted at, his parties were frowned at, and the film made it appear as though the Queen-bandmembers were intimidated by their own pasts being revealed for all to see, which is absurd as it should be the point of the film.

In Rocketman, Fletcher has no problem giving you plenty of scenes with Elton John canoodling men. The film even features a sex scene between Taron Egerton and Richard Madden’s real-life characters. Though John is still very much alive, kicking, and able to influence what can be shown on-screen, Fletcher has no issues depicting him as the unlikable guy he may have been for a long time while under the influence.

Rami Malek rightly got a lot of critical acclaim for his performance in Bohemian Rhapsody, but, in retrospect, his performance is distracting with the insistence on noticeable lip-syncing and the prosthetic teeth that Malek had to act through. Fletcher and his crew work around the John tooth gap so as to not impair Taron Egerton’s performance. Furthermore, Taron Egerton sings all of his own songs. This, of course, does mean that he doesn’t sound exactly like Elton John, but Egerton is a very good singer and he certainly accomplishes what he set out to do, which is to gain momentary verisimilitude in his musical performances as the flamboyant star.

Egerton is outstanding in what is probably his finest, most nuanced and most detailed performance to date. Admittedly, he is the Hollywoodized version of Elton John, but there certainly are moments where Egerton disappears into the role seamlessly. It is in the tiniest of looks or changes in facial expressions that Egerton nails some of that Elton John charm. His is not the only strong performance in the film. Joined by a supporting cast that also includes Bryce Dallas Howard, both Jamie Bell and Richard Madden deliver memorable performances. One might say they play the angel and devil on the shoulder of an influential pop star, and Madden, in particular, revels in his devilish and cruel role.

This Elton John biopic is a musical fantasy about a man needing to learn how to appreciate, love, and take care of himself. From the sequence in which the entire Dwight-family sang “I Want Love,” to the moment in which still pictures compared the costumes in the film with the ones John wore in real life I was spellbound by what Dexter Fletcher had arranged and delighted by the several strong performances including the truly outstanding performance from Taron Egerton, an actor that I’ve been a fan of for quite some time, who has given his best performance yet in this musical fantasy biopic. He may not be Elton, but, oh, how it feels so real.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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