'Rocketman' Dissects Elton John's Life as Tempestuous, Fabulous, Tender, and Painful
There’s something pure and magical about Elton John’s ebullient fabulousness that seems impossible to translate into a straightforward biopic. So why try? Instead, director Dexter Fletcher, who was uncredited for his work taking over Bryan Singer on Bohemian Rhapsody, fashions a tale that’s woven with musical fantasy. Yet somehow, despite fantastical sequences, Rocketman ends up feeling more authentic than the sanitized Freddy Mercury movie, which garnered a lip-syncing Rami Malek an Oscar.
There’s no lip-syncing on the part of Taron Egerton, who plays the titular piano prodigy. Egerton sings his way through most of the numbers, raised up by a stellar supporting cast, particularly an impeccable Jamie Bell, who plays John’s longtime collaborator and lyricist, Bernie Taupin. Rocketman is at once beautiful and painful, following the life of one Reginald Kenneth Dwight, an odd, slightly pudgy boy who had the uncanny ability to ouido. His prodigious talent allowed him to play the piano without sheet music and even compose purely by ear, but it wasn’t until he met Taupin that he was able to make songs that catapulted him to stardom and a multimillion dollar extravagant lifestyle that set the bar for indulgent excess.
Rocketman details Elton Hercules John’s life up until the point where he checks himself into rehab, a quiet admission that his sobriety thereafter simply doesn't compare to the grandiose theatrics of his addiction-addled years. Sitting in a circle with fellow addicts, John, dressed in a bright red and orange, sequin-speckled, angel-cum-devil suit, designed specially for the film by costume designer Julian Day, shares with the group how his life lacks love. This bespectacled creature, from neither heaven nor hell and wealthier than most people will ever be, just wants to be loved.
John’s loveless childhood and eventual loveless adulthood is the central theme of Rocketman, from his cold and broken English household to his roller coaster dalliance with record producer John Reid, played to strictly made-for-cinema smoldering perfection by Richard Madden. (Reid also appeared in Bohemian Rhapsody, with the truer-to-life casting of Aidan Gillen.) Reid in Rocketman is the Reid that John would like to remember, or perhaps more accurately, forget. It’s mainly due to the wanton and intensely sexual relationship of the two that the film garners a strict Rated R-13. Sure, there’s drugs, too—this is rock and roll, after all—but the first encounter between John and Reid elicits a collective gasp from audiences unfamiliar with homosexual relationships.
But the best part of Rocketman isn’t even in the tempestuous, damaging romance, but rather in the tender, loving, and enduring friendship between the fabulously gay John and understated and quiet cisgender Taupin. We all need a Taupin in our lives, someone with whom, as John relates, his support group raptly listening, he has never had a single argument. It’s an unimaginable friendship in the midst of a tumultuous life in show business.
Rocketman dissects John’s life and at times it feels almost intrusive, as audiences learn more about a man whom many know either for his old hit songs or his legendary shopping sprees. There’s none of the excess of the latter, save in passing during a musical number that also skims over John’s drug use and promiscuity. If Bohemian Rhapsody was criticized for sanitizing Freddy Mercury’s appetite for sex and illegal substances, a similar, unavoidable charge can be levied against Rocketman.
Instead of exposing and exploring John’s infamous excess, the film instead runs in the opposite direction and unearths the root of it: a yawning emptiness excavated by unaffectionate family members and exploitative lovers. Some of the most heart-wrenching moments of the film expose John at peak vulnerability, still the pudgy little boy asking for love and affection. It isn’t even an issue of his homosexuality or eccentricity being unacceptable, but that he grew up in an environment so completely devoid of love that his ability to produce such heartfelt music is wondrously miraculous.
This is where Rocketman succeeds where Bohemian Rhapsody fails. It was never clear where Freddy Mercury drew his genius from, with the songwriting process truncated either for the sake of brevity or simply as a directorial oversight. John mines his loneliness with the help of the one person who truly understands and loves him. Rocketman may be a glorious ode to one of the most flamboyant musical geniuses of our time, but it is also a loving homage to his longtime songwriting partner. Taupin is the unsung hero who gets his due, portrayed as the one person who has stuck by John’s side through thick or thin, making Rocketman a celebration of friendship and devotion that sees beyond queerness or oddity.
It is a triumph in casting unfortunately overshadowed by Fletcher’s earlier film. Egerton turns in a brilliant performance that is undeservedly obfuscated by the flashy musical numbers and fantastical storytelling. Egerton is vulnerable, earnest, and less concerned about the mimicry of mannerisms and duplicating dental details than he is about ushering the story to its satisfying end. This isn’t to say, necessarily, that one is better than the other. Only that the comparisons are inevitable with the stories featuring larger than life contemporaries. Rocketman is triumphant and, more important, filled with love.