Rocketman - Review

Rocketman treats its subject like a living, breathing person.

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When it comes to Elton John, there’s really no comparison. Plenty soul singers of the 60s possess equal or greater pipes, and more skillful piano players have been known to sell more records; but no solo artist has written as many incredible songs, never performed so many jaw-dropping live shows. The life story of Elton John seems like the perfect remedy for our stark times, but don’t be fooled into thinking Rocketman is all sunshine and crocodile rock.

In the recent glut of musical biopics, Rocketman doesn’t immediately set itself apart. There’s a fairly conventional rehab framework that ping-pongs from young Elton to the world-renowned superstar, and the first third of the film is dedicated solely to his upbringing. The story soon moves on to wilder territory, but even this growing-up period is replete with memorable moments. We see a young Reggie Dwight (John’s birth name) experience an absent father, cowardly mother, and a grandmother who encourages him just enough to become a prodigy.

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In Rocketman’s first great sequence, Dwight ignites an impromptu rager with “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” as a boy, crawls through a hole in a fence, and becomes a man. He tumbles with a sea of choreographed dancers, trying to fall in step with a song clearly inspired by the musical heroes of his childhood. It’s symbolic, it’s entertaining, it’s well produced: Rocketman takes a moment to hit its stride, but there’s no coming down once it does.

Once Elton meets Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his lyricist and life-long friend, grand setpieces begin to arrive in dizzying succession. There’s a duet of “Honky Cat” between John (Taron Egerton) and his manager/lover John Reid (Richard Madden) that resolved just about every doubt in my body, along with portions of “The Bitch is Back” and “Pinball Wizard.” Songs like these are the pseudo-hits; the ones your dad might not sing along to, but your weird uncle with the record collection holds dear to his heart.

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Rocketman doesn’t shy away from the stranger parts of John’s career: It embraces them. In the first scene, John enters a rehab meeting in full devil garb, and proceeds to list his various vices. It’s not exactly subtle, but that was never the point; the man dressed as a peacock and the Queen of England onstage. It is loud, and just as the musical selection highlights the B-sides of John’s greatest hits, the story makes a point not to miss the grit beneath the glitter.

John was an alcoholic, drug addict, sex addict; summed up, he was a fame addict. Rocketman doesn’t sugarcoat the darkest portions of his life, but pushes them into the spotlight. We see Reggie asking for a hug from his father, and wondering later in life if he will ever be loved. He breaks down, nearly drowns and overdoses a few too-many times for his own comfort. Brought to life by Taron Egerton, who is doing the best acting of his career here, there are real emotional beats struck by Rocketman that rival the best dramas of this year. The look of fear on his face as John realizes he can’t perform a show without cocaine, or the tear-jerking final sequence that has mid-40s John giving that much-needed hug to his younger self; the script is nearly always in sync with its star.

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Rocketman is the rare fantastic blockbuster. It arrives just before peak movie season, and will likely have to fight hard for nominations, but it’s the most deserving music biopic in years. Songs are used to pristine effect, costumes are jaw-dropping, and Taron Egerton is on fire. The film ends with a recreation of the “I’m Still Standing” music video, which is the perfect “what the f***” kind of choice for this movie to make. It cares for its subject, but realizes that means a lot of booze and sex along the way.