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Monday
Jun032019

Review: "Rocketman" blasts off

This review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

Pop stardom is a notoriously fickle thing. For every “legacy” artist out there, there are thousands of one-hit wonders, and hundreds of sort-of famous B listers. One imagines that anyone in the center of the hurricane of New Fame imagines it will last forever. If you find yourself engineering your own biopic in your golden years, congratulations, it did. Which brings us to Reginald Dwight… better known as Elton John.

In the first frames of Rocketman, Elton John (Taron Egerton) strolls into focus, cheekily dressed as a horned devil to confront his own demons in a therapy session framing device...

Despite initial reservations, this navel-gazing is remarkably unannoying as framing devices go, surely because of the inspired visual winking of that devil suit, and the fact that we return to the therapy so infrequently. Elton’s got a show to put on!

The famous 1974 B-side “The Bitch is Back” is adorably placed right up front in the movie and confirms, delightfully, that this is a full fledged musical and not a standard and-then-this-happened-and-that-happened musical biography. In fact, the movie thankfully cares not a whit about being a traditional biopic, and songs from Elton’s whole catalogue come fast and furious, and not remotely in their order of creation. 

“The Bitch is Back” is performed by both Taron Egerton (20 and 30something Elton) and Matthew Illesly (Elton’s child prodigy self Reginald Dwight). To the piano man‘s immense credit, the song feels raucously earned despite literally no build-up. It’s as simple as this — Elton John hasn’t done something this fabulous in ages.  

Not that we should give Elton John all the credit.

Dexter Fletcher, previously something of a journeyman director who was famously hired to resuscitate  Bohemian Rhapsody late into its troubled production, suddenly announces himself as an assured visualist. And he commands a great team. The screenplay by Lee Hall (War Horse, Billy Elliott) is smart and doesn’t get bogged down in most of the usual biopic traps (apart from the over-familiarity of addiction dramas), nimbly leaping from one song to another.

Bryce Dallas Howard and Richard Madden as Elton's mother and lover respectively

The cinematography by George Richmond (The Kingsman) is bold with its lighting and color choices. The production design by Marcus Rowland (Baby Driver) is attuned to the loud but earthy 1970s and Elton’s excess. The costumes by Julian Day (Bohemian Rhapsody, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), even when they aren’t directly recreating Elton’s famously extravagant wardrobe, are blessed with touches of the fantastical. Here’s one blink-and-you’ll-miss it example: In one musical sequence we see little Reggie Dwight conducting an imaginary choir while wearing a pair of pajamas and if you look closely at the pajama top it has a little bowtie on it made of the exact same fabric!

Jamie Bell is typically wonderful as Elton’s instantly close friend and longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (when is Hollywood going to realize that Jamie Bell is a star and shouldn’t always be playing second fiddle?). But, more often than not the supporting cast leans into broad caricature. Still nobody is there for the supporting players…

Biopics of famous people live and die on the star turn at center. Taron Egerton carries the picture with both style and depth, proving himself a dazzling and confident showman as an actor. This is no generic impression but a fully realized character. His Elton is a raw-nerve tangle of pain, humor, confusion, sexual longing (no straight-washing this time- there’s even an enthusiastically gay sex scene), idiosyncratic beats, creative impulsives, and ugly mood swings. 

And then of course there are the hit songs. Though Egerton’s falsetto might not be as strong as Elton’s, his singing voice is resonant with emotion and storytelling, and thus perfect for John & Taupin’s early pop masterpieces, with their unusually rich lyrics and full melodic journeys. Egerton could be a movie musical star if he chose to be (if only Hollywood made more of them). He’s blessed with the ability to act through singing, rather than just pausing the performance to sing.

In one flamboyant moment in Rocketman, the title becomes literal, with a fire erupting under Elton John’s feet, blasting him off into the night sky to become his own fireworks display. This is the point we’re at in this review when the gushing has become its own performance; the movie isn’t perfect, you see, but we were in heaven.. So here’s a whorish pullquote. Rocketman is everything a big screen biopic should be!  It’s reflective of the character and temperament of its subject (something Bohemian Rhapsody failed miserably at last year, selling such a heteronormative version of “Freddie Mercury”), it’s entertaining whether you’re a die hard loyalist or a casual fan of the subject, and its crafted with delicious care by a top notch team. 

If you missed it this opening weekend, run to see it first chance you get on the biggest screen near you. It deserves to fill your eyes, and not just with tears. Be warned that the movie is a tearjerker. Rocketman risks going very earnest and sentimental but the finale is emotionally earned even if it’s awfully literal about the ‘inner child’ business of self-care. Still, it’s a grand entertainment despite the traditional rise to fame – get messed up on drugs narrative. 

In one of the movie’s signature visual beats — chances are you’ve seen this bit in the trailer — Elton’s feet levitate off the ground at his legendary star-making concert at the Troubadour in LA, while his fingers keep pounding on the piano. What the trailers don’t show you is that the audience floats up, too — a small, but brilliant touch. I didn’t literally levitate out of my seat but it took hours to come back down. 

Elton has a new song over the end credits called “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”, which is a duet with Taron Egerton. It is, in its own way, a fine bookend to the movie’s first exceptional musical number “I Want Love” (Elton’s brilliant 2001 ballad) which is sung by the entire ensemble. They begin the song together in one room, but sing their own lines while walking away from each other. The new song is entirely redundant given the narcissism of the film that precedes it. But, no matter. Elton wants your love and with Rocketman in theaters he’ll surely be basking in mass adoration again.

Grade: A-
Oscar Chances: If this were a November release and Bohemian Rhapsody (an inferior movie in literally every way that it's possible for one movie to be inferior to another within the same specific genre) hadn't just had such an inexplicably successful run (four Oscars? wtf) despite its sloppiness, I would say that they were great. But will the Academy go for two musical biopics of queer icons from the 1970s in that quick a succession? If Rhapsody doesn't ruin its chances it could show up in major categories. But regardless we have to assume it has a decent shot at Actor, Costume Design, and Sound Mixing at least.

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Reader Comments (21)

Sorry I found it a film of it's time for people of this time who can't remember past the year 2000.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Wouldn't it be a crime if this movie gets ignored by Oscar after they fawned all over Bohemian Rhapsody?

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

Great review, Nathaniel, I can't wait to see this! And thanks for blasting Bohemian Rhapsody just one more time. Hard to believe the success it enjoyed (that Best Editing Oscar - ugh) when it was so wrongheaded on multiple levels.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Another movie about a gay icon played by all straight men. Hard pass.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

It's a standard, paint by the numbers biopic.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMax

BSA for Bell not possible?

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

Me-

I enjoyed Jamie Bell quite a bit in this but he somewhat disappears in the 2nd half of the film.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

The movie is pretty good (not sure I would give it an A-), but Taron Egerton is very good. While I get the complaints about another straight actor playing a gay icon, Egerton is the right actor physically for this role. And his dedication to giving a great performance is crystal clear.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

No mention of Richard Madden? Does he not have a shot for supporting?

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom G.

DAVID; I see. That's disappointing. Will see movie this week.

Adam; That's more ignorant than I think you can account for.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

On paper this movie has SO much in common with Bohemian Rhapsody.

The "positive" variables:

Box office (likely advantage to BR)
Release date (advantage to BR)
Critical acclaim (advantage to RM)

The "negative" variables:

Overt queerness (disadvantage to RM)
"We just did this" fatigue (disadvantage to RM)
Personnel controversy (disadvantage to BR)

It will be fascinating to net out how important these things are to Oscar—with more precision than usual!

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJF

I honestly think this will suffer a post-Bohemian Rhapsody backlash because of its genre similarity and director. Zero nominations. (I'm not saying it's fair, just that it's likely.)

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCash

People... just go see it as a delightful and honest, fun experience. The movie snobs ( those who look for awards only ) really bother me. Movies were and are meant for enjoyment and
knowledge thru enjoyment.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

I really enjoyed it and agree it was pretty much everything that the dreadful Bohemian Rhapsody wasn't. Sure it's imperfect, most movies are, but it was entertaining with a sense of joyfulness completely lacking in the other film.

I actually reminded me alot of The Who's Tommy (though strangely there was no recreation of Elton's performance of Pinball Wizard in that film) with its interspersed musical numbers, though thankfully it's not all sung. That's a hard trick to pull off.

Taron was fantastic.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I would imagine Best Song is a possibility too. I loved it. Colorful, splashy, Gay Positive. Go!

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

I can't abide by this movie. It's *barely* better than BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, and while it's got better gay storytelling and has more of a unique POV + Edgerton and especially Bell are wonderful, it's just the same ol' hoary biopic cliches. It has the exact same aesthetic as BH, all shiny CGI-augmented and way too clean and polished. There are even shots that are identical, I swear. The silhouette against the white light as they enter/exit a door as they march out newly proud. And the exact same success montage! And the unfortunate make up and hair throughout.

I just found the entire thing to be... not good.

June 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

@Glenn—

Haven't seen it yet...but I believe you, and got that sense from the trailers. Loving Rocketman is a new way to signal that you hated Bohemian Rhapsody, on Twitter—which never gets old, to people who truly loathed it. Wouldn't be shocked if the actual Rocketman product doesn't live up to that...agenda. It's possible that neither film is anything special!

I kind of want someone to make an ever-so-slightly woker (but mostly identical) version of Green Book to watch people scream "SEE! THIS 👏 IS 👏 HOW 👏 IT'S 👏 DONE. WAS 👏 THAT 👏 SO 👏 HARD?"

June 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJF

Damn, this was fun. Taron really pulls off a miracle. I actually forgot he wasn't Elton John LOL. His singing is wonderful. Jamie Bell can do no wrong, in my book. Yes, the movie is full of cliches. But it's all done so well and creates such a high. The sound design and costumes are perfection. Three out of four stars.

June 4, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I agree with Glenn. I found it very cliched and derivative. Some scenes were almost copied from other, better movie musicals (including Evita, Across the Universe, Chicago). What I find interesting is that we currently have two live action musicals in theaters (this and Aladdin).

June 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

In your review I learned that Elton John had a direct hand in this. That explains a lot. I think it is never a good idea to tell your own story. I wanted to love this movie. Here is a pioneer who was quite radical in his day. That pioneering spirit doesnt come through. Instead I found this remarkably safe from an artist who made compelling , risky and inspiring UNsafe choices most of his career. We only ever get these quick hits to suggest things like:

Dad hates you.
Dad hates Mom.
Mom hates Dad.
Dad likes new family better.
Manager is Svengali lover.
Getting hetero married.
Getting hetero divorced with apology.
Bernie and i never fought
Bernie had an epiphany and it was good wish we could tell you about it

Being told a bunch of laundry list things just because and being told them in a 3 shot (sometimes less) but almost never being told WHY is lazy film making. Elton John may have been many things but he could never have been accused of being lazy.

There's no urgency in this film. Theres no revolutionary visuals. Everything is given away immediately because we are in rehab fro
the top (not that most of the audience hadnt known that.)

We are in the golden age of television where increasingly what is produced for the small screen is far and away superior to what is being put on the big screen.. Reclining seats and day old sushi delivered to that sticky lazy boy arent enough to pry me away from Netflix. There were a few snipets of what Rocketman could have been. Instead we got 'Elton John for Dummies.' What an enormous disappointment. This would have been infinitely better streamed as a limited 8 part series where actual themes were allowed to DEVELOP for 47 minutes each. The Fosse/ Verdon model could have shown us 'when (and for that matter how) are you gonna come down' , Rocketman instead of a 'this happened and this haooened and this haooened but we dont have time to telk you why or how but trust us...it did happen and if you could have seen it you'd have...oh just buy the album cause you have no attention span and this isnt a homoerotic super hero movie wuth a bunch if steroud guys all named Chris."

Massively disappointed.

June 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRandyl

"The Bitch is Back" was an A-side single release that earned a gold record and peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Elton is in rehab through the entire film, not some random support/12 step group. That's an important part of the narrative.

June 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLee

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