By Raphael Carty
Rocketman is an audacious reimagining of Elton John’s life as a musical set to the Elton John/Bernie Taupin songbook, with touches of whimsy and surrealism creating a fantastically entertaining film. Beneath the stardust and sequins is a darker story than I had gleaned from the headlines over the years. From his parents who could never love or accept him to his manager who manipulated him through sex and withheld affection, we see the demons that haunted John and almost destroyed him despite his outsized musical gifts.
Director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall have shaped the tale into the archetypal “plucked from the crowd” rise to stardom, complete with hubris-filled excesses at the zenith and a stint in rehab purgatory after the crash. Sure, the songs are out of chronological order; yet it is amazing how well the lyrics support the details of Elton’s life—although that is partly because Taupin wrote several songs’ lyrics based on his and Elton’s life together as two young guys trying to break into the music business. Fletcher’s direction and Hall’s script set the film up for success, but a great deal of the credit also goes to Taron Egerton for his star-making portrayal of the adult Elton, taking over from two very skilled younger actors, Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor, who play Elton as a child and teenager.
I enjoyed Egerton in Kingsman: The Secret Service and other movies, but Egerton’s earlier roles didn’t prepare me for his accomplishment in this lead performance, especially since he appears to be cast against type. It’s not just his chill, understated personality versus Elton’s over-the-top persona. Egerton is too thickly built to be the young adult Elton, who was rail thin, and Egerton’s vocal range is closer to that of the middle-aged Elton of “I’m Still Standing,” without the brightness and easy vocal leaps of Elton’s early ’70s hits. What’s more important is that Taron captures the fragility and underlying sadness of a young boy who never felt loved and makes us believe that this fueled so many foolish adult decisions and the self-destructive diva we see him become. If Egerton, the young tough from Kingsman, couldn’t make us feel the broken child inside Elton, we would never get the payoff when rehab leads to self-reflection and catharsis. Egerton pulls it off nicely.
Some will argue that Egerton’s voice is not up to simulating Elton’s, and he does use his falsetto to reach high notes in the tenor range that Elton hit effortlessly in his 20s. But hearing Taron really sing the songs provides a deeper level of artistic authenticity. There are even times when you close your eyes and believe it is Elton, so deeply does Egerton immerse himself in the role. Fletcher’s decision to have Egerton sing the songbook pays off beautifully.
Egerton is surrounded with a finely tuned supporting cast led by Richard Madden, showing a great deal of range as John Reid, Elton’s manager, who beds Elton to control him. This is not the wholesome prince Madden played so well in Disney’s Cinderella. As John Reid, Madden is convincingly seductive and menacing. Jamie Bell gives the story its heart, playing Bernie Taupin in a beatific performance of a role that is unfortunately written as one-dimensional. I liked Charlie Rowe’s work as the lovable, loyal Ray Williams, who gave Elton his first break but was frozen out by John Reid. Gemma Jones is sweet as Elton’s loving grandmother. Bryce Dallas Howard is unrecognizable and believable as Elton’s narcissistic mum. Tate Donovan is a hoot as a very flamboyant and flirtatious club owner. I had to do a double-take to recognize this usually mild-mannered actor.
The film is handsomely shot from the muted palette of Elton’s schoolboy years to the super-saturated colors of hedonistic ’70s Hollywood. The lovely cinematography helps convey the movie’s fairy tale quality.
Fletcher’s choice to spend so much time on Elton’s childhood is an interesting one. It works to sell Elton’s story of being a sad, unloved child who acts out horribly as an adult. But the considerable time spent on Elton’s childhood years leads to a mad dash through his adult years—which most moviegoers are likely to think will be the film’s focus. Elton’s ill-conceived marriage and divorce from sound engineer Renate Blauel gets barely 10 minutes.
Fletcher has selected the necessary details to craft a story of childhood pain and technicolor dreams along the Yellow Brick Road before the eventual crisis and redemption. But the film could have been even stronger if not tied into such a tidy bow. The biggest omission from the soundtrack is one of John’s most self-revealing songs, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” which contains such cutting lines as “You almost had your hooks in me, didn’t you, dear. You nearly had me roped and tied. Altar-bound, hypnotized.” When I first heard it as a teenager, this song about Elton’s first engagement and suicide attempt struck me as a startlingly honest and unattractive portrait of a man mocking the fiancée he was about to jilt because of the mess he had made of his life. Along with the hurt child and the abused lover in a relationship with his manager, this man was Elton too. The truth is rarely ever so tidy.
That said, Rocketman is a beautifully shaped piece of storytelling. It’s heartbreaking, fantastical, and cannily designed to leave you feeling good as the lights come up!
Raphael Carty is a film buff, business consultant and adjunct professor at a Greenwich Village university.