By Jeff Maisey
I went to see “Rocketman” during its opening weekend. I make a point of reading nothing about the movie in advance as I wanted to have an open mind going in, though admittedly last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was looming in the back of my thoughts.
The biopic film is a two-hour musical fantasy telling of the sad-but-true story of pop star Elton John’s life from early childhood through his 1983 comeback album, “Too Low for Zero.”
“Rocketman” takes us on an emotionally turbulent ride bringing smiles and compelling tears.
Highly entertaining; superbly energetic; spectacular vibrancy of color; a brilliant casting of main characters; and a newfound respect for and better understanding of Elton John, whose music has been part of my personal record collection since I was a pre-teen.
WHAT I WAS SURPRISED BY
I was not expecting the film to be part Broadway musical, part fantasy, and part biographical. The opening was dramatic with Elton walking down a hallway in an orange horned demon-like costume before entering into an institutional alcohol abuse meeting. The scene quickly merged into a musical mode reminiscent of “Grease” with actors sining and dancing in the streets.
The musical theater components where each actor sang lines from an Elton John song to tell the story were well done. I suppose, with Elton being the film’s executive producer, the Broadway style aspect shouldn’t have been a total surprise (though it was) since he has composed for theater in the past. Thinking about it after seeing the movie it was an interesting approach.
Thankfully, those elements do not dominate the film, though they give added fuel in boosting “Rocketman” in a slightly different orbit from “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
WHAT I LIKED
Firstly, actor Taron Egerton nailed his role as Elton John. The characters were all believable.
Additionally, as a fan, the movie delivered many delightful moments showing the viewer how songs such as “Border Song,” “Your Song” and “I’m Still Standing” came to be.
We get to see how lyricist Bernie Taupin and Elton John became friends and develop their longstanding creative partnership thriving.
In fact, we see Elton worts and all, his ups and many downs in this film. From his sternly emotionless father and dismissively uncaring mother who toxically scarred the singer/songwriter for life to the grandmother who saw his natural talent and provided piano lessons and encouragement to drug and alcohol abuse to accepting his sexuality, seemingly glamorous life, and non-stop pressure to produce.
The film is keen to squeeze in as many of Elton’s outrageous sunglasses and performance costumes as possible. It also makes a point of spotlighting his pivotal 1970 live debut at The Troubadour, the legendary West Hollywood/Los Angeles venue that put many a band of the map of future stardom.
All in all, “Rocketman” comes across as honest and entertaining. It is monumentally sad — especially the scene where Elton the established pop star visits his father to offer him a second chance at reestablishing any kind of connection and is treated as a stranger as the elder asks for an autograph for a co-worker and holds his two new school-aged sons in a way he never did with Reg Dwight.
The film also is hopeful in the end as we see Elton John reemerge with “I’m Still Standing.”
WANT I SOMEWHAT DISLIKED
Since “Rocketman” was never intended to be a true documentary it’s hard to fairly criticize it for songs not being necessarily in chronological order throughout. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was flawed just slightly for the same reason, in my view.
Unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody,” this film gives essentially no mention of band members, and in this case I mean longtime backing musicians Nigel Olsson (drums), guitarist Davey Johnstone, and percussionist Ray Cooper.
There are scenes with factual inaccuracies. Elton did not perform “Crocodile Rock” during his debut at The Troubadour. While the scene in the movie shows Elton choosing John as his last name as he looks up at a framed picture of The Beatles, he actually took it from Long John Baldry.
In fact, Rolling Stone magazine lists 12 such inaccuracies.
That said if anyone can take creative liberties with the telling of a story it should be the artist himself, and none of this takes away from the entertaining quality that propels this biopic film to the sun and back.