With the worldwide success at the box office and the Academy Awards of the Queen flick Bohemian Rhapsody, musical biopics are all the rage right now. But none of them likely will be as warts-and-all honest, compelling and inventive as Rocketman, purposely R-rated because, as its subject Elton John says, “I haven’t lived a PG-13 life.” This film doesn’t skimp on any of the addictions, bad-boy behavior, rehab stays and mood swings from one of rock’s greatest players ever.
At its heart, though, Rocketman is an out-and-out musical, in which not only John sings those well-known tunes, but so does just about everyone in his life. Part fantasy, part gritty drama, part dazzling showcase, this might be the movie that haters of Bohemian Rhapsody have been waiting for. Efforts to compare the two, however, should take heed: This is a totally different animal, the only real similarity is that they share a character — John Reid, who managed both Freddie Mercury and Elton at various times — and a director.
The latter is Dexter Fletcher, who originally was to helm Bohemian, but his darker and edgier take on that project was not the direction the film ultimately took. As fate would have it, he came back in after Bryan Singer was fired and finished up the remaining portions of the movie to be shot. Here his vision, with the help of a sharp script by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot), is all there from the opening scenes in a support group, where the rock legend turns up in full stage costume to open up his soul to a group of strangers. For me, I was a vocal fan of Bohemian, which contained a remarkable, Oscar-winning performance by Rami Malek, but that film — largely a celebration of Queen and a more traditional biopic — is not what this one is trying to be. Rocketman brilliantly merges the songbook of Elton John into full-bodied musical numbers that help tell the story and drive the action, closer in spirit to a Moulin Rouge than a Bohemian Rhapsody. And it makes its subject unlikable at times but never less than richly human.
Where it really soars is with Taron Egerton, who inhabits John in every way, not afraid to be unsympathetic but always three-dimensional. Plus, he does his own singing — not imitating Elton (who could?) but getting his spirit and artistry into every performance. Egerton carries off the personal moments, the flamboyant stuff and the spirited and dispirited sides of this star in completely believable fashion. The decision to go with live singing by its lead rather than lip-synching might have been risky, but Egerton pulls it off in every way. After awhile I forgot I was watching an actor and accepted him as the performer we know so well, and who is still here and still onstage. This is a high-wire act that should be headed straight to the Oscars, as I wrote when I saw the film at its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
Entirely impressive is the supporting cast, including a terrific Jamie Bell as John’s longtime writing partner Bernie Taupin, an excellent and nearly unrecognizable (initially for me) Bryce Dallas Howard as his mother Sheila, Gemma Jones and Richard Madden as his take-no-prisoners first manager Reid and early love interest. The much-discussed kiss and sex scene is tastefully done and absolutely right in this film. A big shout-out to the actors who play the younger Reggie Dwight (Elton’s birth name), Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor, very fine as the older Reggie.
Rocketman soars not only on the wings of its fantastic musical sequences, not only on the shoulders of Taron Egerton and the man he plays, but also on its unflinching honesty and courage to tell it like it was. Producers are Adam Bohling, David Furnish, David Reid, and Matthew Vaughn. Sir Elton himself is among the list of executive [producers. Paramount opens it Friday. Check out my video review above,m which includes scenes from the film.
Do you plan to see Rocketman? Let us know what you think.
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