"Rocketman" is the Elton John biopic that is both musical drama and comedy. I was able to see an early screening last week and because I've been so busy I have not yet been able to post a review at least until now. Let me just say I was really impressed with his film and I enjoyed it immensely. There are things about it that some may not care for, but if you like musicals, this is going to be your “cup of tea”.
Unlike last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, “Rocketman” does not attempt to tell the story of its subject in a linear fashion using the songs as a structure for the subjects chronology. Rather, the songs in this particular film appear in no particular order except to reflect events that happen in Elton’s life and make a particular point.
The story starts with a flashback to his childhood as he is coming to grips with his own demons. Elton John appears to have been a prodigy as a child when it came to listening to music. After briefly hearing a complicated piece of music he could reproduce it on his own on the piano. This talent made it possible for him to attend a Fine Arts Music Academy, where his talent could be developed. Since the story is based on Elton’s own ideas, it seems that the only person who backed up his desire to learn the piano and develop his talent was his grandmother. If Elton’s parents are still alive they might very well be disappointed at the way they have been portrayed on screen. His mother appears to be a lazy indifferent woman who had little interest in her son other than what he might do for her. His father was a cold hard man who did love jazz but seemed unable to share this love with his son. Much of what follows reflects Elton John's attempt to connect with his parents through his fame and success in the pop music field.
The director of this film, Dexter Fletcher, who had a hand in completing Bohemian Rhapsody last year, has been given much greater freedom in telling the story of this pop phenomena. The musical sequences are staged very much like old style Hollywood film where the neighbors might form the chorus line and where the audience becomes a choir. We often fade out of a real world situation into a fantasy element which mirrors the emotion that are reflected in the story. Of course those emotions are heightened by the fantastic music of Elton John and the lyrics of his partner Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell. The two actors who portrayed these partners do an excellent job but special credit certainly must go Taron Edgerton who not only does a credible impression of Elton John as a character, but also performs the songs himself lending credence to the scene by using his own voice. Edgerton is not the only person who sings on screen several secondary characters also have moments where they a warble a few lines or sing the chorus of one of those very familiar tunes.
There are some fantastic visual elements in the film highlighted by the depiction of Elton John’s star making turn at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. This was a concert that I remember reading about in the Los Angeles Times back when I was in middle school. The dynamic performance and the setting turned an English pop star, who is not yet famous in his own country, into one of the biggest stars in the United States. This galvanizing event brings John and Taupin into the Southern California music scene where the usual tropes of a rock and roll tragedy and then redemption are played out. There is of course a great deal of attention paid to Elton’s use of alcohol and drugs and the effect they had on his mood and self esteem. The biggest negative however appears to be, the romance he began with a man who became his American manager, played by Richard Madden. The passion that he felt is portrayed on the screen effectively but so is the disappointment that he has in this fickle and somewhat backstabbing character.
Of course other highlights in the film include mini concert performances including his appearance at Dodger Stadium in front of a massive crowd. Even in this grandiose setting however, we can see the faults in Elton John's emotional journey. We sympathize with the contradictory circumstances of his professional success versus his personal failures. There is a devastating scene where Elton connects with his father and the father's new family. It's easy to understand how a relationship like this could drive his ambition but frustrate his heart. Taron Edgerton manages to pull on our heart strings but also frustrate us with his depiction of Elton’s poor choices. It's only after Elton reaches bottom, including a brief marriage to a woman he barely knew and whose heart he broke, did he begins to come to grips with his faults. Again the musical sequences dramatize these events very effectively and in a completely different way did the diorama version of Freddie Mercury that we got last year.
If it weren't for the fact the Bohemian Rhapsody received award attention this last season, “Rocketman” would be a contender for many prestigious film awards next year. It is somewhat hard to imagine that the Academy would give it’s award for performance, two years in a row, to an actor portraying a pop star. If ever it was necessary to repeat yourself at the Oscars this year should be one of those situations, Edgerton is that good.
My daughter is not a huge fan of Elton John but she was looking forward to this film quite a bit because she is a fan of young Edgerton and loved him both in Kingsmen and Eddie the Eagle. Surprisingly, she only recognized about a third of the songs in the film. I on the other hand, knew every song and was suitably impressed by the way they were being used by the film makers. Both of us felt that this was one of the more satisfying films we've seen this year and we look forward to revisiting it when it opens wide next week.