“Rocketman” is the movie equivalent of a jukebox musical, stuffed full of Elton John music, but writer Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) provides smooth transitions that are deftly handled director Dexter Fletcher with cinematographer George Richmond. “Rocketman” explores the emotional journey of a pudgy Reginald Dwight to an addiction survivor who finally found love on stage and off as Elton John.
Fletcher most recently replaced Bryan Singer as director of last year’s biopic n the band Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and previously directed the 2016 biopic about the English underdog Olympian “Eddie the Eagle.” Taron Egerton, best known for the “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and its sequel “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” starred as the eponymous Eddie and portrays Elton Hercules John for “Rocketman.”
Instead of a concert and behind the scenes musical like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocketman” is concerned with the emotional life and development of Elton John. Beginning at his lowest point, John enters an addiction therapy meeting dressed as a bedazzled orange devil with massive horns and expansive feathered wings. He’s be the envy of any cosplayer, but he’s totally inappropriate dressed for a breakdown the barriers soul-baring meeting where everyone else is in casual Friday mode. He easily admits to many addictions: alcohol, drugs–both illegal and prescription and sex. He’ll even add bulimia. Yet flashing back, we’ll come to understand that he wasn’t making a grand entrance, and slowly he’ll lose the horns, the wings and eventually the jumpsuit.
Before that, he’ll remember who he was. Seeing his younger self (Matthew Illesley) in the center of the therapy circle and then as a child in a loveless marriage between flamboyant Sheila Eileen (Bryce Dallas Howard) and shell-shocked, repressed Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh). Reggie clearly needs more affection from his father, but he’s blessed with a grandmother (Gemma Jones) who recognizes his musical precociousness.
Stanley eventually leaves and has a second family with better results, but that only depressed the by then famous first son. To the young Reggie, Stanley is cold and casually callous, seemingly afraid of Reggie’s interest in his mother’s fashions. Although interested in music with an extensive jazz record collection, Stanley doesn’t encourage his son’s musical interests beyond passive listening.
Through his grandmother’s encouragement, Reggie gets a scholarship at the Royal Academy and while he gets the suitable training, his musical tastes are really elsewhere.
His parents eventually divorce and his mother finds a husband, Fred (Tom Bennett) who’s more compatible and more supportive of the young Reggie (Kit Connor plays the older Reggie).
After playing at bars, Reggie attracts the ear of Stephen (Max Mackintosh), the son of music publisher Dick James (Stephen Graham) of DJM Record label. Dick James isn’t convinced but Stephen matches Reggie up with Bernie Taupin. Meeting together Reggie and Bernie find common musical ground in a country song: The Streets of Laredo. Reggie effortlessly writes music to the lyrics and during a meeting at DJM Record label becomes Elton (after the name of one of his bandmates, saxophonist Elton Dean of his Bluesology group) John (after John Lennon).
The DJM Record label gets Elton John a gig at the fabled Troubadour where Elton John not only gravitates (as does the audience), but also attracts the attention of steely-eyed predator John Reid (Richard Madden). John Reid will help facilitate Elton John’s descent into drugs and drink when they eventually become more than a one-night stand. There’s a sense of John Reid seizing on his prey and then crushing the ego of the man who’s crushing on him–having flagrant sexual encounters basically on Elton John’s dime and time.
When Elton John, now famous, finally admits to his mother that he’s gay, she’s accepting to a point, but admonishes him that he’s chosen a lonely life and will never be properly loved. That almost explains his marriage to the lovely Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) who grew disenchanted with the Vodka and orange juice eye-openers Elton John fancied for breakfast. After she left, Elton John would fall hard.
John Reid is the villain of this musical fairy tale because with Elton John’s husband David Furnish as one of the producers, this is the Elton John version of his life, brightened up for easy consumption and condensed with literary license for time and dramatic considerations.
If you’re hoping to hear Elton John singing his hits, you will likely be disappointed. Here the different characters break into different parts of Elton John’s catalog as it suits the scene and that includes Jamie Bell’s Bernie Taupin singing with Egerton’s Elton John for “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” although earlier we’re told that Taupin is tone-deaf. You might think that Princess Diana’s friendship will be touched on when you hear “Candle in the Wind,” but that’s left out and would have only been a distraction.
In a jukebox musical, the audience doesn’t expect the original sound from the singers, but a cast that can handle the vocal requirements. One also doesn’t expect the truth or deep and profound examinations of the musician or singer(s). What one expects is a good arrangements of songs that slide effortlessly into and out of the story and great costumes (How could it not? This is about Elton John), and that’s what “Rocketman” provides. Those in the know, have to think that the Hollywood scene, including West Hollywood had something to do with the flash and bling that Elton John adopted and the poster with the blinged out baseball uniform is a tribute to Los Angeles (home of the Dodgers).
Elton John survived a chilly childhood through the encouragement of his grandmother, searched for love and had his heartbroken, survived the drug addictions and is now living a sober life with a husband and kids. He’s still friends with Taupin which is an amazing accomplishment for anyone. That’s his story and that’s why the movie ends with “I’m Still Standing.” As a jukebox musical, “Rocketman” is fun, well-arranged and well-paced with good transitions and portrayals.
Elton John says “Rocketman” is the story about redemption and asking for help and how he became a better person after becoming sober. If there’s a moral, it’s this: Sometimes you have to kill the person who your parents thought you were to be the person you were born to be and sobriety is part of the journey toward happiness.