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Rocketman comes on the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody, a box office juggernaut that swept awards season last year. Comparisons were always going to happen given the connection with music manager John Reid and the fact both movies focused on the lives of larger-than-life and flamboyant music stars. However, Rocketman really isn’t anything like its predecessor.
In fact, Rocketman is a full-blown musical. I mention this because I’m not sure the trailers have made it clear to the average person that it is a bold and offbeat musical and you should be fully prepared going in.
Although much of Rocketman gets into Elton John's stage prowess as an adult, we do spend a good amount of time at the start of the movie at home, where as a young man (real name: Reggie) he lives with his mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), her mother Ivy (Gemma Jones) and for a period of time, his father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh). There's little affection in young Reggie's life, although Ivy tries to make up for it, and it's only when Reggie finds music that he is able to also find his voice. Even as an adult, however, he's very much troubled by his upbringing and his drinking and drug use is tied to these toxic relationships as an adult.
The flick is R-rated, sometimes unbridled with whimsy and other times deeply grounded. It doesn’t shy away from Elton’s love affairs or stressful relationships. It doesn’t pull away from his deeply ingrained hate for himself at the height of his career, nor does it make light of his rampant self-destruction.
There’s a lot of dichotomy in Rocketman just like there’s a lot of dichotomy in the man himself.
Director Dexter Fletcher makes some bold directorial choices here, a lot of which I loved. His movie covers much of Elton John’s popular catalog (and a few deep cuts) as well as much of Elton John’s early life and career. Yet, somehow the narrative manages to feel seamless, which is a nod to Chris Dickens’ editing as well.
It’s the transitions that do it. Particularly, during the musical numbers “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” which transitions Kit Conner’s tween-aged Reggie into Taron Egerton’s now-grown version. Or the astonishing “Rocketman” sequence, which transitions from Elton John’s famous Dodger Stadium appearance (as seen in the trailers) onto an airplane with perfect execution.
Prior to Rocketman’s release, director Dexter Fletcher called the movie “uncompromising.” It’s a word that’s a positive when it comes to Elton John’s story and its highs and lows, but it also means the movie runs a little long and may not be for everyone.
Having said all of this, this fits well into my personal wheelhouse and will end up being one of my favorite movies of the year, featuring performances and a soundtrack that are worth revisiting over and over. Yet, it’s not likely to be a major crowd pleaser in the same way a lot of musicals are, although it is funny in parts and touching in others. It’s also dark and tragic and upsetting, a movie that anyone who’s ever dealt with deeply flawed families will easily identify with.
It shows us every side of Elton John, the good and the bad, all anchored by a cunning and admirable performance from Taron Egerton, who does his own singing and performing as Elton John. It lets Bryce Dallas Howard get away from the image of a young woman running in heels. Here, she’s Reggie’s miserable mother, a frumpy and unreasonable woman who has decided everyone else must feel unpleasant too. The push and pull of that relationship is key to Elton John becoming Elton John.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Richard Madden’s unruffled and calculating John Reid, Jamie Bell as Elton's longtime writing partner Bernie Taupin, who disappears into the role so well it took me a full thirty minutes to place him, or the two young men, Matthew Illesley and Kit Conor, who sing Reggie into adulthood.
There’s a lot going on in Rocketman and I hope you enjoy it as much as you're impressed by it. Either way, you don’t want to miss it.