Movie Review: “Rocketman” (2019)

Last year audiences were treated to the story of Freddie Mercury (or a version of it) in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  As you may recall if you read my piece on the film, I liked it but also had real problems with it.  One of my biggest complaints was that it, “never plumbs the depths of Mercury’s psyche… Instead, it just skips from one moment to the next to the next, skimming the surface.”  To see exactly how a movie can tell a rock and roll story, complete with sex and drugs and parental problems and managerial issues, one need look no further than this year’s “Rocketman.”   It is a musical biopic head and shoulders better than “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

This new Elton John movie features Taron Egerton as the mercurial singer/songwriter. Just like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the tale itself features the usual sort of highs and lows we have come to expect from those who live the lifestyle of a musical superstar, but it does them better.  There are insane, imaginary, musical numbers; there are plenty of truly emotional moments; and there is a real look at the interior of the man himself.

Directed by Dexter Fletcher with a script from Lee Hall, the film centers itself around John (born Reginald Dwight) having gone into therapy for his many addictions (including drugs, drinking, sex, and shopping) and relating his experiences to the group.  The audience watches as he slowly becomes more comfortable telling his story, goes from lying to offering the truth, and even if he isn’t becoming Reginald Dwight once more, it at least allows a true look at the man who is Elton John.

While I greatly enjoyed Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury last year and noted that he is better than the movie around him, Egerton is amazing. This is no doubt in part because “Rocketman” gives him more to do than “Bohemian Rhapsody” offered Malek, and Egerton is up to the task.  He brings us inside John, so that even when we hit the heavy drinking and drugs portion of the story, the one we’ve all seen before, it feels unique.

Egerton is also, as he must be, absolutely spectacular at the musical numbers. There is a vibrancy to those moments which makes them truly feel like an Elton John performance while still offering something inside them.  It is more than mimicry, it is insight.

The same is true of the songs themselves.  Although Bernie Taupin (played with quite a bit of heart by Jamie Bell) writes the lyrics and John does the music, the songs themselves feel as though they are about John, and Fletcher makes this happen with little questioning about the process of words and music itself.  Of course, some liberties seem to be taken here – we see “I’m Still Standing” play post-addiction, but the song was released in 1983 and other events in the film (which does not rely heavily on dates) definitely occur after that.  The song works thematically, but does make one wonder just what other moments have been fudged in pursuit of the best film possible.

Due to the manner in which Fletcher and company have decided to tell the story, “Rocketman” does get slightly bogged down with the drugs and alcohol excesses of John’s life (which is why “I’m Still Standing” works where it is).  For the most part, it eschews the comeback part of the story – offering up that he’s been sober for decades and happily married for most of that time as a postscript. The audience watches him learn to love music, be raised in difficult fashion (Bryce Dallas Howard is exceptional as John’s mother, as is Gemma Jones as his grandmother), and suffer the excesses of his lifestyle.  Choices must be made for a movie such as this one, and not doing the last nearly 30 years of his life makes sense, but a little more happiness could go a long way.

If nothing else, this movie puts us squarely on John’s side, not with blinders on—we recognize when he is wrong—but on his side nonetheless.  We urge him to dump his fraud of a manager, John Reid (Richard Madden).  We pray for him to get sober.  We hope for him to not marry a woman if he doesn’t love her.  We want happiness and success for this man, and are treated to plenty of the latter but too little of the former.  It is an emotional journey for the character on screen and those in the audience, and while there is some catharsis at the end, the audience is left wanting more.

“Rocketman” may not be a birth-to-present-day biopic, but it is a in-depth look at one of the greatest musical artists of all time and the struggles he has faced.  Egerton delivers a stupendous performance and the film is full of magical, wonderful, and heart-wrenching moments.  It shows how a biopic can define a life and tell a rock-and-roll story without feeling like it’s just a run of the mill tale.

four and a half stars

photo credit: Paramount Pictures

 

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