Dexter Fletcher’s musical biopic of the rise and multiple face-first falls of music legend Elton John is a bold, dazzling, lavish, decadent film that features a career-altering performance by Taron Egerton.
Director Dexter Fletcher took over last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody after the original director, Bryan Singer, was replaced. He was never given an actual director credit for that film, which, depending on who you talk to, might be a good thing (film fans versus movie critics, even though Bohemian had a more positive reaction with critics in Europe). I enjoy Fletcher’s work as an actor in several films, but his role as John Martin in HBO’s landmark miniseries Band of Brothers is what I remember him most for. His first mainstream job as director was in 2016’s criminally underseen Eddie the Eagle. With Rocketman, Fletcher officially shows he can handle a big studio spectacle. His music biopic is a bold, dazzling, lavish, and decadent film that is remarkably uncensored when it comes to its legendary subject’s struggles and closeted life. I guess that’s why they call it the blues.
It’s a little bit funny that an Elton John biopic has been in development for over 20 years, which makes sense since John seemed to get his life together by the mid-’90s finally. Several studios have had their hands on it, from massive conglomerations like Disney to studios known for their indie fare, such as Focus Features. What might explain why so many dragged their feet might have been the subject of Elton John living as a closeted gay man. Studios perhaps were afraid to depict that at the time on-screen when trying to market a spring-summer release. In 2019, there is no such problem, but there wasn’t in 2009 either, so it’s puzzling why it took this long. Let’s give credit where credit is due and do what was right; Fletcher and company fought for the first openly gay-male sex scene from a major studio film ever and managed to keep it in. I guess Saturday night’s alright (for fighting) after all.
The closest films I can compare Rocketman to in narrative structure are one of last year’s best films, Blaze, and a film that was a massive disappointment over a decade ago, 2007’s Across the Universe. Rocketman goes through the current time in the movie or flashbacks, the origins of the songs he is singing, and how they came to be with writing partner Bernie Taupin. Each piece is a walk down memory lane to another time in his life with a quality intimacy rarely seen in big-budget biopics. The result isn’t as exhilarating as in Ethan Hawke’s film, but each is highly immersive and soulfully entertaining.
Another aspect of the film is how writer Lee Hall and actor Taron Egerton depict the musical legend with (most) of his warts intact. Hall takes John as a gifted piano student at the Royal Academy of Music, dealing with a loveless father and an over-critical mother. They told him it wouldn’t be in tradition with the family plan. The film’s depiction of one of the musical greats is refreshingly uncensored in the way it shows on-screen how to deal with the nonacceptance of who he is and the lack of love from his family because of it, his struggle with depression, and his self-medication with substance abuse of alcohol and hard drugs like cocaine.
Fletcher and Hall find a secondary wheel that pushes the film along and with a love that has been missing from John’s life; that’s an almost a Philia love between with best friend and longtime songwriting partner Bernie Tauper. There is a lovely, tender, and accepting moment between the two, where Egerton’s John misreads Bernie’s affection for him as physical and tries to kiss him. Bell’s Tauper pulls away just before John gets there and tells him, “I love you, but just not in that way.” It’s a rare moment in the film that shows someone acknowledging his sexual orientation while showing him acceptance and still offering unconditional, absolute love because of it.
There are a handful of excellent supporting performances to go along with Bell’s that should be mentioned here as well. Gemma Jones, as John’s grandmother Ivy is also lovely here. Future Bond star (if I had my way) Richard Madden can be chilling as Elton John’s cold, abusive lover. Veteran actor Stephen Graham (Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire) has a handful of good scenes and offers some natural comic relief.
When I first heard Taron Egerton won the role, I had my doubts. I enjoyed several of Egerton’s films, but John’s life was a complicated one. I wasn’t sure if he had the acting chops to depict the overall struggle and face-first dive into his substance abuse. This is a role that is the farthest from his role in Kingsman one can get. He is really wonderful in Rocketman. The biggest compliment you can give an actor is if you forget you are watching an actor portray a character instead of watching just a character. A few minutes into the film, I forgot I was watching Egerton and thought I was watching John struggle with his closeted life, sniffing cocaine off an expensive oak desk, and shedding tears in a cab as it drives away. It is a career-altering performance that will change the perception of any ceiling that some might have put on his career. This film should open up new doors and take the stink off from last year’s Robin Hood.
The film, for me, did feel a tad too long, but that may be a victim of Elton John’s grand professional successes. They also didn’t address the Ryan White case, which was documented to have had a profound effect on him that turned his life around and had him shouting to the world, “I’m still standing.” Those, though, are minor complaints. Ultimately, Rocketman is a big-budget music biopic, is a visual feast for the eyes, sounds even better, and looks like it’s worth every penny they sunk into it. Fletcher gifts us a half-dozen extraordinary set-pieces going through some of his most famous songs, and even a two-hour film didn’t have room for all his hits (I won’t ruin the ones they use here). The film doesn’t have a pretentious bone in it. Fletcher’s film is a dazzling spectacle that is remarkably uncensored and surprisingly moving.