'Rocketman' Is the Jukebox Musical Elton John Biopic We Never Knew We Needed
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There's a moment near the beginning of Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher's "musical fantasy" Elton John biopic, (and if you don't want it spoiled you should skip to the next paragraph) when Elton, having traveled all the way to America for his inaugural performance at the Troubadour in LA, slams his fingers down onto the chords of "Crocodile Rock" as his feet levitate behind him, the rest of the crowd following him into the air. John's signature high kicks have been well documented, but in this moment, in this movie, it's not a hop or a kick or a jump -- it's magic, it's flight.
It's also extremely corny, as is much of Rocketman, which never leaves anything to subtext if it could easily be said in text. You really don't have to do any work, mentally, to watch this movie, which isn't necessarily a fault. The corniness, the over-the-top frivolity, is part of its charm, and is actually utilized in really fascinating ways to show the jarring highs and lows of depression, loneliness, and addiction.
It's definitely hard to be objective about a movie-musical whose needle-drops are as great as "Tiny Dancer," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," and "I'm Still Standing," and maybe I'm just relieved that this is objectively so much better than a certain Oscar contender from last year. It's an operatic jukebox musical, full of dance numbers and random individuals breaking into song, but Rocketman doesn't shy away from its warts-and-all depiction of Elton John's rise to fame -- which feels so refreshing when we're faced with so many biopics of so many complex individuals that do.
It starts John's story at the very beginning (after it begins with John striding into rehab wearing his orange and red horned devil costume), with little Elton John, then known as Reginald Dwight, revealing his musical prowess to a family that has only a faint idea of what to do with it. His father (Steven Mackintosh) keeps him at arm's length, while his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) smothers him with a halfhearted sort of love. His grandmother (Gemma Jones) is the only one to take initiative, enrolling the boy in piano lessons, sending him to the royal academy, where he discovers jazz and rock and roll and begins to understand his own sexuality.
Let me tell you something: Taron Egerton bites Richard Madden’s finger in this movie. Rocketman is very gay -- no watching longingly from the shadows and then cutting to the next morning in this movie. Egerton and Madden (who plays John Reid) share many flirtations and one full-blown sex scene, plus a musical number -- "Honky Cat," if you can believe it -- during which Reid helps John put together his flamboyant "look." The costumes, by the way, are fabulous, and also remarkably faithful recreations of many of John's classic insane outfits: the poofy Queen of England hoop skirt makes an appearance, as does the bedazzled Dodgers uniform.
Naturally, the film gives John's life a dramatic, operatic flair. It begins with orchestral strains of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," and contains a few slightly altered arrangements of classic songs. Egerton managed to sound like John, but not like he’s doing any kind of crazy impression. He even imitates the little drawl that worked its way into John's musical affect out of his love for Elvis Presley. Plus, Egerton's not the only one singing: he shares a few musical numbers with members of his family, his friends, and, during one emotional high point, with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). As the movie deals with John's problems with addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness, many of his most popular jams play over scenes of total desperation. It's crushing to watch him practice his wide-eyed grin in the mirror before popping onto the stage to please larger and larger crowds, all the while knowing that behind the feathers and sequins and ridiculously shaped glasses is a man steadily breaking down and has no idea how to ask for help. (My only big complaint is that many of the songs don't last long -- you get maybe a couple verses and the chorus of "Bennie and the Jets" before the scene moves on again.)
The corniness of it will no doubt turn some off from its central message, but, in some ways, a dizzying Moulin Rouge-esque fantasy is the perfect way to dramatize what makes Elton John's life and his music so special. It's fun, and sad, and silly, and angry, and ultimately very sweet.