Before I begin I need to say that I know very little about Elton John, other than being familiar with some of his big hits. The trailer didn’t really sell it to me and since I’m not a fan of his, I had no real drive to see it. But I’m a fan of musician biopics and Taron Egerton, so it seemed like a good match. Named after Elton John’s iconic 1972 song, Rocketman is a fantasy-musical biopic following the unassuming early days of Elton John as a child genius at the Royal Academy of Music right through to the flamboyant pinnacle of his career as one of the most successful artists of all time. I went into the cinema with no real expectations and came out thoroughly impressed. It’s a great film.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle, Sunshine on Leith), Rocketman starts with Elton John (Taron Egerton) attending an addiction rehabilitation group dressed in a bright orange stage costume. After introducing himself to the group, he admits that he’s an alcoholic, cocaine addict, sex addict and bulimic. After being asked about his childhood, we’re transported back in time to his past where we learn of his humble beginnings in a household devoid of love from his parents Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh).
Only he’s not the “Elton John” the world will come to know at this point in his life; he’s still Reginald “Reggie” Dwight (Matthew Illesley). Reggie’s only real source of love and encouragement comes from his grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones), who provides the moral support he needs after being accepted to the Royal Academy of Music after his music teacher recognizes his incredible talent for playing the piano.
Later in life as a young adult Reggie and his band are hired to play backup for a touring American jazz band. He learns from one of the singers that he needs to write songs, change his name and give up his old identity if he wants to be successful. This inspires Reggie to change his name which comes to fruition during a meeting with music manager Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe). During this meeting we learn Elton is able to write music and sing, but falls short in one key area: he simply cannot write lyrics.
Elton is then introduced to Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), a gifted songwriter with the creative chemistry to match Elton’s own skills. The two are a perfect match, and soon embark on what would become one of the most prolific and successful partnerships in the history of popular music. But the path to being a global sensation comes at great cost to Elton, who painfully struggles with substance abuse and struggles to find love.
The acting across the board is fantastic. Nobody lets this film down and I was moved by the strong performances of all the cast. With so many talented actors in this film and a limited word count to this review I’ll keep it focused on those who really stood out. Though I want to reiterate that everybody is great in this film.
Taron Egerton is amazing to watch as he brings to life this iconic and flamboyant musician to screen with not only solid acting chops, but singing and dancing too. That’s right – there’s several musical numbers in the film to help tell the story from the perspective of Elton as he tells his rehab group about his life. Egerton will make you want to cry as you watch him get crushed with every disappointing moment between him and his parents as he never receives the love and support he desperately craves from them.
Or feel his anguish, anger and frustration as he realizes his relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden) is destined for failure after learning John is hooking up with other men and doesn’t have any real feelings for him. Then he’ll lift your spirits high with his singing, dancing and stagemanship as he performs in a ridiculous number of outrageous costumes. Egerton delivers the goods on all fronts and I can see awards heading his way for this performance.
Jamie Bell is also incredible as Elton’s friend and longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. More grounded and less prone to spectacle, Jamie really encapsulates the friend who loves you no matter how much you succeed or fail. There’s palpable onscreen chemistry between Bell and Egerton that really lets us feel the patience and understanding Bernie has for his superstar counterpart. Even when Elton is wasted and being acting like a douche, Bernie will always love and be there for him. Jamie portrays this critical role wonderfully on screen.
Dexter Fletcher (who helped finish Bohemian Rhapsody) has directed a movie that is moving and funny. Given the story is told from Elton John’s perspective in a rehab session there’s room for a lot of creativity with facts and timelines, which Fletcher has really taken advantage of. Taking a page from 2016’s La La Land, the drama is broken up with musical numbers consisting of Elton’s hits to help convey key moments in Elton’s career through song, dance and metaphorical imagery with video style editing. This allows Fletcher to approach serious topics such as Elton’s hedonistic lifestyle or his medical emergencies in ways that are tasteful and emotional rather than literal or overly confronting.
We get some interesting moments inside Elton’s head where he sees his inner child – his former identity as Reggie – watching on, reminding him who he once was, which gives the audience more to absorb than simply watching the cliche of a rockstar self destruct through substance abuse and bad behavior. Fletcher is really concerned with looking at the loneliness of success, the damages of excess and the happy facade we show the world despite our inner suffering. Money doesn’t buy happiness and the people who matter most are those who accept you for who you really.
Unexpectedly, Rocketman is up there on my list of top movies for 2019. With strong performances, well-choreographed dance numbers, creative storytelling and an extensive wardrobe, I found this to be an easy film to recommend – even if your playlist isn’t bursting with Elton John songs. But for those fans there’s much to love here as many of his greatest hits are recreated as spectacular musical numbers and inspired works of imagination. It’s rare to see the story of a man we thought we knew so well still able to find new ways to surprise and delight us, but that’s the real magic at work here.