I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
When did Elton John become a rock star? Arguably it was when he played at Los Angeles’s landmark Troubadour club in 1970, which introduced him to American audiences and ignited his celebrity. And the way Rocketman depicts this moment… *whew.* I was in tears of joy, but also of awe, for here this is a cinematic moment not of earthly triumph but of supernatural wonder: as John pounds on the piano and belts his heart out, his feet and legs rise up behind him in weightless liberation, only his hands on the keys anchoring him. He looks as astonished as we are! And then the crowd, already enthusiastic, begins to float up, too, as they dance. We don’t just watch this: we share their exhilaration. We live it.
Rocketman is, miraculously, that enrapturing because it knows what makes a rock star so celebrated: for how the music makes us feel. Lighter, freer, more alive. Rocketman doesn’t just show us the ecstatic headlines of the reviews that John earned for his Troubadour show (though it does do that too). That actual airiness between feet and floor is the very jubilation of music, the manifestation of the mystery of the fame of pop performers.
But there’s more good stuff going on here. This is an absolutely electrifying movie in how it deconstructs the typical rags-to-riches, sex-drugs-and-rock’n’-roll story: it starts with the downfall and uses the comeback path as its map for exploring how it all came to be. Recovery and redemption mirror rise and fall. The film opens with its damaged hero — a stunningly good Taron Egerton (Robin Hood, but best known till now for the Kingsman action spy comedies) — stalking into rehab in full “Elton John” regalia: a jumpsuit in tangerine sparkle-flames, devil horns, feathered wings, “electric boots.” And as he tells the tale, in extended flashbacks, about how he came to sink so low as to be taken over by drugs and alcohol even as his career and renown skyrocketed, he strips away the fantasy persona to get back to the Reggie Dwight he was born as.
It’s group therapy, literally in the context of the film, and figuratively with us as his confessors. The movie itself must surely be considered therapy, if rather retrospective (the movie ends in the 80s), on the part of the real-life John himself, who is one of the film’s producers. There’s no way to call this a vanity project. It’s so much the opposite of that, so raw and honest and self-deprecating and vulnerable, which is such a rare thing that we don’t even have a term for it. It’s a humility project. Is any of it authentically true, or even close to it? Who knows. But up on the screen, it works and it’s moving. (The terrific script is by Lee Hall, who wrote the in some ways similarly themed, and definitely fictional, Billy Elliot.)
John’s backstory is not unfamiliar: he was a working-class kid with quite awful parents (Bryce Dallas Howard [Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Gold] and Steven Mackintosh [Urban Hymn, Robot Overlords]) who were utterly intolerant of all his glorious nonconforming weirdness, and unimpressed with the immense musical talent he showed even as a small child. (Fortunately, he had a sweet and quietly steely granny — Gemma Jones [God’s Own Country, Bridget Jones’s Baby] is the movie’s secret weapon — who nurtured and supported him.) But how Rocketman tells this familiar story is unexpectedly magnificent: this isn’t merely about music but an actual musical, the kind of impossible fantasia in which characters break into song at improbable moments in improbable places — the middle of a suburban street, the midst of a Hollywood party — in order to express their innermost feelings, the ones they cannot talk about.
All the songs here are John’s, of course, written with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell: Fantastic Four, Nymphomaniac) — just as sidebar, Rocketman is also a sharp and big-hearted portrait of a longtime creative partnership and friendship — and they don’t necessarily show up in the order in which they were written in reality… but rather, in emotional order, or so we may reasonably interpret. A very young Reggie (Matthew Illesley) breaking into “I Want Love” (a 2001 song) in his almost loveless childhood home sets the stage for Reggie’s tragedy, as he constantly reinvents himself as camouflage, as a way to escape from that cold existence. “I wish I was someone else,” adult Elton says out loud at one point, but that’s been the subtext of all his ultimately failed solutions to that fundamental quest. (That the other members of his family join in on “I Want Love” is perhaps a more generous depiction of them than they deserve, rendering their callousness as their own failed responses to a world that has let them down. His parents are not outright villains, and that makes it easier to sympathize with adult Elton’s later attempts to reconcile with them.)
The occasional somberness of Rocketman does not, however, at all impact on its big joyful rowdiness. A crowdpleasing biopic of one of the biggest pop stars ever, full of 70s and 80s glitz and glam and tons of great music? Of course it’s impossible not to compare Rocketman with last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, about Queen but mostly about frontman Freddie Mercury. But rarely when such cinematic confluence happens do we have this extraordinary metric for comparison: Director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle), who took over the reins from Bryan Singer when Rhapsody went off the rails during production, also directs Rocketman… and has from its inception. And the differences are stark.
I liked Rhapsody a lot, but it flies mostly on the power of Queen’s music and the sensational central performance by Rami Malek. Rocketman also has amazing music — as with Rhapsody, this is a stunning reminder of how many iconic songs Elton John (in partnership with the perhaps less dramatic but equally talented Bernie Taupin) has given us. And Egerton, always an intriguing screen presence… well, he rockets to a new level of craft here, for which he deserves all acclaim and a new level of stardom. The delicacy with which he contains John’s pain even as he is embodying the most outwardly outrageous aspects of the Elton John persona is a masterclass of multilayered acting. And, doing his own singing here, he captures not only John’s voice but his personality in much the same chills-inducing way that Joaquin Phoenix captured Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.
But Rocketman works on another level entirely from Bohemian Rhapsody that goes way beyond the fact that this movie is less coy about the sex-and-drugs aspect of rock’n’roll-dom, or about John’s homosexuality… though the much vaunted gay-sex scene — with John Reid (Richard Madden: Cinderella, A Promise), Elton’s long-time 1970s manager and first long-term partner — is hardly overly explicit, and merely echoes romantic straight-sex scenes we’re used to seeing onscreen. (I don’t mean to minimize the importance of a hot romantic gay-sex scene; I just want to point out that it is in no way hard-core gay porno.) No, this movie comes together as sheer, exuberant cinematic magic in a way that Rhapsody should have but didn’t. I don’t think you need to be a particular fan of Elton John to get a lot of fun and cultural food for thought — about how we need to nurture our artists more from a young age — from this wonderful movie.