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Review: Rocketman (2019)

Rocketman (2019)

Directed by: Dexter Fletcher

Premise: A musical drama about the life of Elton John (Taron Egerton). The story tracks John’s rise to fame and his relationship with songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) as well as John’s struggles with substance abuse and his sexual orientation.

What Works: Some films about musicians play too much like a stage show. Rocketman is a cinematic musical. The film uses Elton John’s impressive library of music to tell this story, matching songs to particular points in his life and occasionally placing songs ironically. The film slides easily from straight dramatic sequences to musical numbers and back again and employs formalistic filmmaking techniques and surrealist imagery. There are some extraordinary musical numbers in this film, namely “Saturday Night’s All Right (For Fighting)” and “Crocodile Rock” and “Rocketman.” Like Elton John’s music, these sequences are flashy and upbeat and fun but more than that the musical numbers advance the characters and the story. With each song we get a sense of who Elton John is and how his life is changing. Rocketman has a lot of energy and moves along quickly but it also takes the time to provide a complex and nuanced portrait of John. The story is primarily about this musician’s struggle with his identity. As depicted in this film, Elton John was born Reginald Dwight to a middle class family and he was a homosexual at a time when that was not socially acceptable. John had to reinvent himself and the key struggle of Rocketman is John fighting his identity and burying it in outrageous costumes and drugs. The story also allows for some interesting and engaging relationships. There are some heartbreaking scenes between John and his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) but also between John and his musical collaborator Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell. The movie works as well as it does in part because of its direction and musicality but also because of Taron Egerton’s performance as Elton John. Egerton sings as well as acts and he is convincing as a familiar celebrity while allowing the audience to see the humanity of a larger than life public figure.

What Doesn’t: Rocketman is yet another musical biopic that is produced by its subject; Elton John is credited as a producer and so the movie has to be understood in that light. Like a lot of show business biographies, Rocketman follows a rags-to-riches-to-rehab formula. The filmmakers tell this story well and they disguise the familiarity of the story by personalizing it. Elton John’s substance abuse wasn’t just rock and roll excess; John was coping with his troubled relationship with his parents and his need to disguise his sexuality. But Rocketman skims through some of the interesting aspects of John’s life, especially his marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker). Their three year marriage is covered in just a few scenes. Quite a bit is made of John’s sexual orientation and the fact that he felt he had to hide it but this conflict never really comes to a resolution. There is no coming out moment nor does the film address what impact John’s coming out may have had on his career. John’s struggle with his identity is central to the story but it comes across incomplete.

Bottom Line: Despite some narrative flaws, Rocketman is an exceptional musical. The picture’s extraordinary set pieces and terrific cast allow Rocketman to transcend the familiarly of its show business story.

Episode: #752 (June 9, 2019)