“My name is Elton Hercules John, and I’m an alcoholic, and a cocaine addict, and a sex addict, and a…” The list continues, including, but not limited to, addictions to prescription drugs, weed, and a problem with bulimia. Plus, there’s the issue of shopping. He just can’t stop. And at this point in his life, he really needs help.
In director Dexter Fletcher’s new biographical film presented as a musical fantasy with all the warts, Rocketman is structured as a series of flashbacks told by John (Taron Egerton, who does his own singing) while attending a group therapy session. Looking as if he’s just walked directly off the stage after a performance, the musician, looking distraught, emotional, bursts into the meeting room dressed in full flamboyant concert costume. He pulls up a chair, sits, and proceeds to tell the story of his early life. If he’s wanting to exorcise any demons, he’s wearing the right apparel; flaming sequins, red devil horns, and a pair of large, red-feathered wings.
As with all feature film biographies, Rocketman is a series of highlights, a lengthy trailer to an eventful life jam-packed with conflicts, upsets, highs and lows, where certain events are either condensed or, due to how well Elton John’s life is already documented and known by fans, glossed over or not mentioned at all.
The film’s tone of fantasy is established the moment the first song begins. From within the seated circle of his group therapy, looking back at himself as a young boy, Elton, then Reggie Dwight, starts The Bitch is Back as the confines of the group meeting area opens up and becomes the streets of the northwest London town of Pinner where young Reggie was raised. The song develops into full film musical mode as friends and neighbors dance and join the boy in an exuberant big-screen take of the 1974 song.
Through memories related to everyone seated at the Alcoholics Anonymous styled meeting, Elton recalls his life as a boy, living with his not-so-bothered mum (a curiously cast Bryce Dallas Howard with an excellent north London working-class accent), his caring grandmother (Gemma Jones) and an emotionally absent dad (Steven Mackintosh), Elton recalls the challenges of just trying to be happy. “When are you going to hug me?’ the boy asks his father, whose every word to his son sounds like a scold. “Don’t be soft,” he dad replies. And while seated at the kitchen table flicking through the pages of one of mum’s fashion magazines, his dad sternly orders him to, “Stop looking at that. You’re not a girl.”
Rocketman may be a jukebox musical, but the film’s approach is not a simple case of having the catalog of known hits shoehorned in to fit an appropriate moment. This is that big screen rarity; a fully-fledged, old-fashioned movie musical where the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of all characters, not just its lead, are expressed through song and dance. The 2001 hit I Want Love begins as an emotional response by Elton as a little boy after another cold rebuke from his dad, then joined by his mother, his father, and his grandmother, as each gives voice to what they feel is missing in their lives.
Late at night, when sitting up in bed, the boy, his head now filled with the future possibilities of music, imagines himself conducting a full symphonic orchestra to a classical arrangement of Rocket Man, with young Reggie playing a solo on the piano. Occasionally, original lyrics are tweaked to fit the moment. When the song is later repeated, Elton, now heavily stoned on drugs and booze, sinks to the bottom of a swimming pool, he sings underwater of his loneliness and how things have changed, but instead of “… I miss my wife,” the line becomes, “… I miss my life.”
Early advice from an American singer becomes something Elton, still known as Reggie, takes to heart. “You’ve got to kill the person you were born to be to become the person you want to be.” In order to break free from the constraints set by family life, the budding musician takes those words to heart, beginning with the changing of his name to something a little more rock ‘n roll. The ‘Elton’ part paid homage to saxophonist Elton Dean (Evan Walsh), though the film alters the story behind the choice for his second name. In reality, singer Long John Baldry was an early mentor of Elton’s – the song Someone Saved My Life Tonight is dedicated to the blues singer – but due to the economy of time and writer Lee Hall not having to introduce a whole new character to audiences just to give sense to a reference, Elton glances at a picture of The Beatles hanging on the wall and focuses in on John Lennon.
The film covers Elton’s rise with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), the Dirt Brown Cowboy to Elton’s Captain Fantastic, including their success and the wretched excess that followed. From a fan’s point of view, the most interesting moments surround the creation of the songs, as when Bernie hands Elton the lyrics to Your Song; it’s only moments before the musician has already formed a tune, underlining Elton John’s extraordinary talent. Plus, when Elton performs Crocodile Rock at LA’s Troubadour, there’s a moment when his feet leave the ground in slo-mo as if both he and his career are about to take flight, reflected by the appreciative and packed club audience whose feet also rise above the ground, ready and willing to take the ride with him. Like the opening number performed in the cul-de-sac of little Reggie’s London home, the Troubadour performance displays another moment of musical exuberance.
But as often happens in rock star musical biographies, once Elton’s life, his homosexual relationships, the booze, the drugs, and the unrestrained, wealthy lifestyle takes its toll, the film, like Elton’s career, spirals down. After a great opening and middle act, the film never fully recovers in the final third. There are no references to Elton’s love of soccer or his ownership of the Premier League team Watford Football Club (though he gets a header with a soccer ball during Honky Cat) and audiences never get to know his band where musicians like Nigel Olsson, Dee Murray, and Davey Johnstone played such a huge role in the creation of Elton’s albums. You don’t leave the theatre in quite the upbeat way that you might have done with the film that is guaranteed to draw comparisons, Bohemian Rhapsody (also directed by Fletcher once the film’s original director was dropped; you know the story), but Rocketman is an altogether different film with a different style. There’s no emotionally overwhelming Live Aid concert to conclude matters on a musical high, though there is a recreation of the music video I’m Still Standing, which basically sums up the musician’s current state of a happy existence and proves a positive moment on which to end the tale.
“Maybe I should have been more ordinary,” the man reflects at the group meeting. Perhaps, but then Reggie Dwight would never have become Elton John, and we would be robbed of some of the greatest pop/rock work ever. Yes, full disclosure: I’m a fan, a huge fan, and I cherish those early albums. Rocketman may not fully deliver – frankly, for personal taste, I’m not entirely sure I wanted a thorough ‘R’ rated warts-’n-all version of the man’s life; being aware was enough – but at least, up until that final twenty minutes, under director Fletcher’s guidance, the film is a genuine musical crowd-pleaser, elevated further by Egerton’s surprising showstopping form as Reggie, the boy from Pinner who went on to become a cat called Hercules.
MPAA rating: R Length: 121 Minutes