Taron Edgerton soars as Elton John in ‘Rocketman’
It would be futile not to compare and contrast Rocketman, the new Elton John biography, with Bohemian Rhapsody, last year’s Freddie Mercury biography, which was not only a huge hit ($900 million worldwide) but earned five Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and for which Rami Malek won Best Actor as Freddie Mercury.
For one thing, Dexter Fletcher, the actor-turned-director who helmed Rocketman, stepped in to complete Bohemian Rhapsody when Bryan Singer – amidst accusations of pedophilia – left before principal photography had ended. Whether he left on his own accord or was dismissed is a moot point, and whatever one’s opinion of Bohemian Rhapsody, the end result was seamless. (For his trouble, Fletcher received an executive producer credit while Singer retained his directorial credit.)
Both films focus on British rock stars, both gay, both noted for their flamboyance and both prone to self-destructive behavior – be it alcohol, drugs, or sex. And both films, with a few alterations, could very easily be turned into stage productions.
Unlike Freddie Mercury or James Brown (Get On Up) or Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or Ray Charles (Ray), Elton John is still very much alive and took a very active interest in Rocketman. Not only he is billed as executive producer, but his husband David Furnish is among the producers, and it’s to their credit that they did not want to whitewash the story.
By and large, rock stars do not live lives that fall within a “PG” or “PG-13” range, and some of those earlier music biographies have tailored their stories to qualify for the more audience-friendly rating – and that includes Bohemian Rhapsody. From the outset, Elton John insisted that Rocketman be R-rated, which is a major reason the project had been in development for nearly 20 years. The chemical and sexual excesses aren’t merely there for sensationalism but as a depiction of the dissolute depths to which Elton had crashed.
Like Malek’s Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman boasts a stellar turn by Taron Edgerton as Elton, but unlike Bohemian Rhapsody many of the secondary characters make a solid impression rather than remaining almost entirely in the background. Chief among them is Jamie Bell, who brings a credible, no-nonsense compassion to Elton’s long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin. Whether there would be no Elton John without Bernie Taupin or vice-versa is also a moot point, since Elton the producer obviously wanted him given proper credit – and Bell ample screen time.
If anything, the film Rocketman most resembles is Beyond the Sea (2003), Kevin Spacey’s big-screen ode to Bobby Darin, which was fashioned as a musical (replete with splashy numbers) that reflected the onscreen drama. Like that film, the adult Elton interacts with his childhood self, the lonely boy Reginald Dwight, played first by Matthew Illesley (in his screen debut) and Kit Connor, before Edgerton takes up the role.
There’s very much a “little boy lost” quality to Elton as portrayed here, the flamboyant costumes and preening, petulant attitude an attempt to mask his emotional turmoil. To say that Elton John had “issues” in his life would be an understatement, and Rocketman tackles them head-on – whether it was dealing with a dismissive, father (Steven Mackintosh), and a slatternly mother (a memorable Bryce Dallas Howard), although his beloved grandmother (Gemma Jones) always stood by him.
Despite early fame and success, Elton was, to quote a different tune, looking for love in all the wrong places. His relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden) was predicated less on mutual affection than Elton’s neediness and Reid’s predatory nature, which was less sexual than it was financial.
Yet if there’s blame to be ascribed to Elton’s bad behavior, it falls upon Elton himself. It wasn’t a matter of too much too soon, but a matter of finding his actual self – a lengthy and painful process that is recounted here in all its highs and lows.
There are those who will say Rocketman is something of a therapy session sponsored by Elton John, as the narrative unfolds while Edgerton, resplendent in bright orange devil costume – now there’s subtle symbolism! – pours his heart out at a meeting of recovering addicts.
But Rocketman is by no means a downer. If nothing else, Elton John is a showman, and this allows Edgerton and director Fletcher to cut loose. Even with so many of Elton’s songs in heavy radio rotation to this very day, there’s genuine pleasure to see them interpreted (as it were) here, whether it’s “The Bitch is Back,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Crocodile Rock,” or the title tune. And although it’s not an Elton John composition, “Pinball Wizard” is used extremely well to reflect Elton’s frazzled state of mind.
There are moments of humor here too, including a subtle but amusing running joke in which John constantly brushes people away when they touch his hair, and although it would be easy for Edgerton to play up Elton’s flamboyance, you never lose sight of that lost little boy still trying to make his way – and find his place — in the world. He may be larger than life, but he’s human like the rest of us.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.