With the success last year of BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, questions have swirled around ROCKETMAN, the Elton John biopic starring Taron Egerton (the KINGSMAN films) as the now legendary pop-glam rocker-balladeer-pianist-songwriter-composer, for months. Would it be as good? Would it pink-wash Elton’s gay lifestyle the way BO RHAP did Freddie Mercury’s? What about his drug use and bulimia – would the story deal with those too?
To its credit, ROCKETMAN deals with everything from Elton’s difficult relationship with his father, to his 50-year business relationship with writing partner, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL), to his sexual relationship with his manager, John Reid (Richard Madden, TV’s BODYGUARD and GOT), to his alcohol and drug abuse and a whole lot more. Told in flashback from about 1990 when he joins a group therapy session, the story begins in earnest in 1956 when a young Reggie Dwight (played by the fabulous 9-year-old Matthew Illesley) impresses his mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard, the JURASSIC WORLD films) and grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones, PATRICK; G-D’S OWN COUNTRY; the BRIDGET JONES films) with his ability to play anything on the piano that he hears just once… and that’s even before he’s had one lesson. Thanks to Ivy and not Sheila, the film points out, Reggie’s musical talent is nurtured and, before long, he’s playing backup for other acts on stage. This eventually leads to him meeting Taupin, and the pair creating a good chunk of the soundtrack to my generation. The rest, as they say, is rock ‘n roll history with some time-shifting allowed for dramatic license.
In true Elton style, the story is structured like a fantasy jukebox musical. (It’s also a bit of genius because you know this film will be adapted for the stage and it won’t be that hard to tweak it.) There are some wonderful show-stopping song-and-dance numbers throughout the film as Egerton shares the singing duties with young Illesley, Bell and Madden. As for Egerton, I’ll concede that he doesn’t have Elton’s range or power but it doesn’t matter. Egerton doesn’t try to mimic the studio version of Elton’s songs. Instead, he sings “unplugged” or concert versions, which add to the film’s heart.
Of course, everyone is going to compare it BO RHAP, myself included. Sure, the two stories have their similarities and they share the character of John Reid (played by Aiden Gillen of GOT fame in BO RHAP), who managed Queen for a few years in the ’80s after he and Elton fell out. They also have director Dexter Fletcher in common. Fletcher was brought on board for the final two weeks of filming BO RHAP after director Bryan Singer was fired because of sexual allegations and behavioural issues on the set. But other than these things, and they’re big, the two films are quite different because ROCKETMAN paints a rather unvarnished picture of Elton’s rise to superstardom. Here, we see him snort coke (multiple times) and have a very steamy sex scene with Reid. In BO RHAP, the seamy side of Freddy’s private life was either alluded to or just glossed over. It apparently makes a difference if you’re still standing.
If there is some nit to pick with ROCKETMAN it’s that the soundtrack follows his life, shifting the order of a few tunes to suit the narrative. The bigger problem, though, is that he didn’t write lyrics, Bernie Taupin did. It’s highly doubtful that Taupin wrote lyrics based on what was happening in Elton’s life. If he did, he’s never said so. If anything, the songs reflect Taupin’s state of mind, as the song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” does.
But ignoring that blunder, the film features plenty of fabulously outlandish costumes and glasses. Be sure to stay for the closing credits sequence and you’ll see how spot on the costume designer was.
All in all, ROCKETMAN is highly entertaining and, if we’re going to compare, I liked it more than BO RHAP. Now who’s next – George Michael?
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