It’s occurred to me that the jukebox musical hasn’t earned the best reputation, particularly with the examples we’ve seen this century (mostly Mamma Mia 1 and 2). Of course, for the next most anticipated film to fit in this category to arrive at theaters mere months after Bohemian Rhapsody left critics, regular audiences, and Queen fanatics separated and polarized, the timing may be either the best or the worst thing ever, depending on who you talk to. Rocketman, the musical biopic focusing on the early years of musician Elton John, truly gets the best leg up in the wake of its closest neighbor. More importantly, the tea leaves are better arranged to create an improved story, even if it starts out a bit rocky and isn’t as true to the facts. Your typical musician biopic clichés are too well in play here, and yet they don’t completely get as much in the way as one would fear.
With Taron Egerton taking on the lead role of Sir Elton, entering the room, a room in a rehab clinic, so to speak, in a devil costume, flaws and all, there’s no way the film could miss. With director Dexter Fletcher, having worked with Egerton previously on Eddie the Eagle, and having rescued Rhapsody from director limbo, there’s no way it can’t be a flawless masterpiece. The first act is the toughest clunker, the kind of first act where you’re reminded too easily of the kind of film we’re being subjected to. Lee Hall’s (Billy Elliot, War Horse) writing style strikes me as that of very old-fashioned, astute English filmmaking. It’s a style that certainly matches with Elton’s upbringing, classic British suburban life in the 50s, back when he was known simply as Reginald Dwight. His family barely understands him, though they still somewhat give him a mere shroud of support. As pointed out midway by his cautious mum Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), “you will never be loved properly.” It’s something his birth father (Steven Mackintosh), the type of serious, stiff upper lip dad none of us ever wanted growing up, tends to enforce a bit too much. It’s reinforced all too painfully with Elton’s first real romance, a love-hate relationship with original manager John Reid (Richard Madden, confidently taking the reins from Aiden Gillen).
Roughly utilizing some of Sir Elton’s later songs to chart past his boyhood years, and right up to his first meeting with lyricist and best friend Bernie Taupin (a wonderfully effervescent Jamie Bell), that’s perhaps the toughest pill to swallow through the whole picture. But once that’s out of the way, and the tone is set, we’re appropriately treated to a quick-paced, quick-footed stage musical with a drug-laden high thrown in. It’s just as fast, and then as slow as Elton saw everything. The flow throughout is naturally seamless, at times feeling like finely choreographed ballet seen through the thickest of beer goggles. Kudos to Chris Dickens (Les Misérables), whose experience linking interpersonal conversations with lightning-fast cuts could keep any moment wholesome and consistent, even during the moments where its hard-earned R rating is flexed.
The music is obviously the most valuable asset in Rocketman; John and Taupin’s music remains very legendary even after 50 years of a long-standing partnership with nary a wrinkle. The film still claims they’ve never had a creative argument once, but what best friends with a deep bromance wouldn’t have a bit of a vocal scuffle every so often? It is healthy, it’s natural; Egerton and Bell embrace that aspect like a stiff cup of tea. Their compositions are the film’s heart and soul; Egerton the brain by which those capable performances are transcribed; Giles Martin, Matthew Margeson, and Ben Foster the trio responsible for ensuring those works are delicately reimagined for future posterity.
The numbers themselves, most of them may have been a trifle too short to reach their largest thematic strength; but that’s nothing more than a minor quibble. Some may say they probably did match just how they could’ve fit into a more stage-like version of the same script, which may be as apt. The title song, “Crocodile Rock”, and “I’m Still Standing” (reinvigorated as a triumphant comeback song of sorts), were among the standouts as far as pure filmmaking brilliance. No manner of divine filmmaking intervention would’ve been enough to keep Fletcher’s vision from not being realized in those specific moments. The crown jewels, so to speak, may be with those three songs, the biggest highlights that are sure to start the larger conversation, if the quieter scenes don’t do as much.
Rocketman is resting comfortably amid very good company for the musical genre; the 2010s have seen mostly top-quality successes in the field, even when most can’t shake off the typical storytelling quirks that struggle to separate a film from a stage counterpart, whether one exists or not. The positive praise many have given this finest hour for both director and lead star is truly justified; Fletcher’s reached the best high point he could, shepherding young Egerton into a new level for his career. Essentially everything before donning the musician’s glasses has prepared him too well. He is the rightful manifestation of a musical icon, through the best moments of a storied legacy, but certainly the worst where his teeth are borne, and soul stripped down to atomic weight.
Fans may be living in a better realm through Taron’s portrayal, and hopefully the casual cinephile can get in on the celebration just like I knew I could. I’ve adored Elton’s music since The Lion King, a unique bond with a creative mind that most take for granted but is still something considerably special. His life story now existing on the screen should be the culmination of many things, for many people. For me, it’s just a reminder of said bond. And again, it depends on who you talk to, it won’t be the same general reaction. But each one will be valid, each song will belong to everyone, much like the legend of the human who wrote them. A human who, at 73, will retire from touring at year’s end, but clearly still has much to say, and we’ll certainly be continuing to listen, and watch, the same way many could in his younger years, with jaw-dropping amazement. (B+)
Rocketman is currently playing in most area theaters; rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content; 121 minutes.