My mother took me to my first concert when I was a young teen. Ever the stylish trailblazer, she wore a halter top, hot pants, go-go boots and a cape as she led me into a giant arena in Cleveland to see none other than Elton John. She stood and sang the whole time and frequently would yell to him, “You’re the king! You’re the king!” When surprise guest Kiki Dee hit the stage to perform their iconic duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, I swear my mom lost her shit. She couldn’t find it. It was gone! Around that time, Elton had just come out as bisexual, which cemented his icon status with me even further. Here was this masterful singer, pianist, and songwriter who embraced his own fabulosity and had bravely for the time tip-toed towards his queerness. He was, and has always been, my favorite. It’s my way of saying that I came into Rocketman predisposed to loving it.
Director Dexter Fletcher (who, with his taking over the reins on Bohemian Rhapsody, knows a thing or two about gay rock icons) and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) have turned Elton’s life story into a phantasmagorical, full-blown musical, which, while riddled with the usual rock star cliches, manages to evoke the feeling of his music, and it’s an exhilarating experience. Additionally, when not bursting with kaleidoscopic energy, the film brings us the painful and intimate story of a young boy whose demons seem to stem from a lack of parental love. Despite achieving superstardom, Elton, with his crippling shyness as a child turning to drug, sex and alcohol excesses as an adult, along with a diva’s temperament, seems to cut to the heart of Jennifer North’s famous statement in Valley Of The Dolls, “You know how bitchy fags can be!” This film, in its quieter scenes, painfully shows us how the judgment and coldness Elton experienced can lead to anger, depression, addiction, and suicide.
Taron Egerton gives a brilliant performance as Elton. Unlike Rami Malek’s Freddy Mercury, Egerton does his own singing, realizing a similar tone and a gorgeous, wistful energy to a couple dozen songs from a remarkable catalog. We first meet him sporting an outrageous orange devil’s outfit as he bursts through the doors of a rehab center. Faster than you can say, It’s A Wonderful Life, Elton talks about his 1950s English childhood, as a full-blown song and dance number to “The Bitch Is Back” erupts on the screen. Following his younger self through his old neighborhood, we’re then treated to a quieter series of scenes in which we explore his lonely home life and emerging talent as a natural piano player. While his distant father (Steven Mackintosh) and indulgent, uncaring mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) find ways to denigrate him, his grandmother (Gemma Jones) recognizes and nurtures the specialness in him.
From here, we witness Elton’s rise to the pop stratosphere, including his chance meeting with Bernie Taupin (a warm, engaging Jamie Bell), who will become his lifelong lyricist and great friend. He meets John Reid, who will eventually take over as Elton’s manager and boyfriend, until the usual betrayals and ugliness ensues. Between how Aidan Gillen played the role in Bohemian Rhapsody and by Richard Madden’s commanding turn here, you get the sense that Reid himself hasn’t had a very good year. For me, he seemed like the harsh voice of reason, but I’m willing to bet audiences will hiss him.
Some sequences work better than others. The songs tend to serve the narrative rather than adhere to chronology, so we breeze through his younger years with a fun, trippy number set to “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”. When Egerton makes his first young Elton appearance in this number, it’s a knockout blast. Later, we watch him literally levitate, along with the audience, in a career-launching stint at the Troubadour to “Crocodile Rock”, despite the song being written years later. It doesn’t matter, as these sequences have fluidity, grace, and a rush of energy. Rocketman has been billed as ‘Based On A True Fantasy”, and this approach goes a long way towards smoothing over some of the film’s clunkier aspects. Many of the events of Elton’s life feel cookie cutter, but through the filmmakers’ almost abstract interpretation of it, we get a propulsive, exhilarating ride nonetheless. He may yada-yada through key moments, such as Elton’s meteoric rise, but Fletcher stays focused on Elton’s internal struggles. It’s not the deepest of biopics, since it really doesn’t go too far into all of the known story beats, opting instead to give us an experience through pure musical feeling.
At times, I felt like Fletcher was simultaneously tipping his hat to Ken Russell’s Tommy, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, and in its early scenes, John Boorman’s Hope And Glory, yet the controlled rage of Egerton’s performance, especially in some devastating silent glances, make this its own unique experience. Try not to die a little inside when adult Elton visits his father and sees that he dotes on his new children, having never done the same with him. Egerton’s work here broke my heart. As much as I loved the splashy numbers, the quiet ones, such as a goosebump inducing scene in which Elton writes his classic “Your Song”, moved me more.
Some collaborators worth mentioning include a hilarious turn by Tate Donovan as the Troubadour owner, Doug Weston, Julian Day’s splashy, spot-on costume design, and George Richmond’s 70’s perfect cinematography. From London to Los Angeles, on private jets and inside gaudy mansion drawing rooms, the film provides a rush of visuals. It may feel like a messy hodgepodge of looks and tones, but doesn’t that describe Elton’s life? He went from one musical style to another, sometimes forgetting what day it was or what town he was in, but he wrote a lot of amazing melodies.
Yes, people break out in song and dance throughout the film, or things turn surreal, such as in one sequence which starts out at the bottom of a swimming pool and culminates in Elton literally blasting off into space. As such, the film benefits from its fearlessness in never shying away from being a musical. Some numbers fall flat, such as Elton’s kinda lame “walk and talk” as he sings “Tiny Dancer” at a Hollywood party. Other moments get the music video treatment, while a song like “I Need Love” gets sung by various characters who, quite obviously, could use a little more of it. A key moment in the film begs for his classic “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” but instead goes with his upbeat “I’m Still Standing”. I understand the decision, but felt the former would have resonated on a deeper level and put a nice capper on his beautiful relationship with Taupin. The film also suffers by never allowing any of the songs to be sung in their entirety. Some get as little as one line whereas others get cut too short. A little breathing room, especially on the title track would have been nice. But with songs this great, and with Egerton’s fearless, sometimes vicious, sometimes delicate performance, Rocketman soars. I wish my mother was still around to see it, as she would have risen from her movie theater seat, thrown a go-go boot at the screen and screamed “You’re the king!” one last time.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Rocketman does not shy away from its VERY gay content. Much has been said that its sex scene is the first of its kind in a major studio film. I think they all forgot about Making Love, but still, Elton’s sexuality is a key ingredient to the storytelling, and the film does not hold back. It’s all 50 shades of gay, and as a bonus, there are enough orange feathers, glitter, and sparkles to fill up a whole, goddamned color wheel!
Rocketman is in theaters now
By Glenn Gaylord