“Rocketman” isn’t about Korean leader Kim Jong Un. This Rocketman is about iconic singer, songwriter, pianist and composer Sir Elton Hercules John who was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight. He and lyricist Bernie Taupin have collaborated to sell more than 300 million records, making John one of the best selling music artists ever.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher, who co-directed “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Elton John and frontman Freddie Mercury were both electrifying showmen who suffered from troubled childhoods and became wildly successful before poisoned by the fruits of fame and fortune. They were both exceptionally flamboyant, established unique artistic styles and became instantly recognizable. And, they were both gay.
However, these are two very different movies. “Bo-Rap” was more of a dramatic biopic, where we followed the life of Mercury and heard their tunes. We watched the rise-fall-rise of the superstar. This one plays more like a fanciful Broadway jukebox musical. It’s a creative fantasy, bringing extravagant song and dance numbers randomly into the storyline from a reimagined playlist of the main character.
Taron Egerton (“The Kingsman”) is dazzling, does all his own singing and captures the outrageous physical showmanship of the undisputed superstar. The real Elton told Egerton to make his own version of any of the songs, so it was refreshing to hear so many revised hit tune arrangements that are simply off the charts.
The darker themes involve an emotionally abusive childhood that generates identity issues and a deep case of self-hatred. A friend explains, “Sometimes you need to kill the person you were born, to be the person you want to be.” So, Reggie becomes Elton in name and much more. He parades around in more exotic outfits than Cher. He justifies, “People don’t pay to see Reggie Dwight, they pay to see Elton John!”
Sex, drugs and rock and roll are a few of the Hollywood clichés that also include rags-to-riches-to-rock-bottom. All are on gaudy display, including gratuitous sexual scenes involving those of the same persuasion, if you know what we mean. This hedonistic behavior is repulsive to many, especially those not fans of Elton to begin with.
The movie doesn’t always work because it takes creative risks, just like its subject matter. Elton John didn’t just sit at the piano and play songs like Neil Sedaka or Bert Bacharach. Trained at the British Royal Academy of Music, he was a serious musician and master showman. Shocking outfits and outrageous behavior were who he was as a performer and a person. Right or wrong, this movie needed to salute such originality.
The screenplay by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) displays a fantastic story grounded in unlikely reality. We know the sensational genius, but witness a flashy eccentricity unchecked over decades that lead to sadness and despair. Quite simply, he was messed up.
The tortured-artist melodrama is almost cliché, but Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), Elton’s trusted writing partner asks, “Is the campaign to kill yourself going well?” Elton eventually admits, “I’m so tired of running away from myself.” His Mom asks, “Do you know how disappointing it is to be your Mother?” Dad explains, “I think you would have been strange no matter what.” Elton finally learns, “I think it’s ok to be strange.”
“Rocketman” is 121 minutes and rated R for language, drugs and sexual content. Spoiler alert: Elton survives. He has now been sober almost 30 years and is active in charity. He is married, retired from music and focused on raising their two sons. BTW, his “Candle in the Wind” has recently surpassed “White Christmas” as the biggest selling single ever.
This sad story includes real issues of acceptance, friendship and love in the artificial world of show business. The bright spot is that after over 50 years, Elton has still never had an argument with his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin. These Reel People find it coincidental that we are equal partners in reviewing movies, just like Elton John, and that guy he writes the songs with, equal partners.
Ron’s Rating: B+ Leigh’s Rating: C-