I’m just over here waiting for my Beatles biopic, don’t mind me…
“Rocketman” is the telling of Sir Elton John’s career, from his days as a piano prodigy through his highs and lows as one of the world’s most famous musicians. Taron Egerton stars as John with Jamie Bell as his musical partner Bernie Taupin, Bryce Dallas Howard as his mother and Richard Madden as his manager/boyfriend John Reid. Dexter Fletcher directs.
Like quite a few biopics (especially when the subjects are still alive), “Rocketman” took a long time to get to the big screen. John shopped his story around beginning in 2001 and in 2014 it was set to star Tom Hardy. After that and other renditions fell through, Egerton was finally cast in the lead role last April and Dexter Fletcher, best known recently for finishing up filming on the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapspdy” after Bryan Singer was fired, was hired. The film then became notarized for being the first Hollywood production to feature a male gay sex scene (at John’s request that the film be an honest R and not watered-down PG-13 like “Bohemian”). And how is the finished product after all the blood, sweat and tears by John, Fletcher and company? I mean, solid and light enough.
Taron Egerton has been one of those actors that you keep rooting for and know he could be great because he burst onto the scene so brightly in 2014’s “Kingsmen: The Secret Service.” However he has since put out bland products and has been only moderately appealing himself (most recently for last year’s snoozer “Robin Hood” reboot), and him getting cast as John seemed like his final chance for most people. Lucky for us (and Egerton), his portrayal of Elton John is quite solid, full of cheeky British wit and dark and gloomy self-pity. He certainly is playing a caricature of John and not an actual Daniel Day-Lewis-esque reenactment of the singer, but that is alright. It lends itself to the magic, removed-from-reality take on John’s story the film plays with, and could possibly land him the number five slot in some award races next winter.
Also turning in solid work is Jamie Bell as John’s possible one true (albeit platonic) love, musical partner Bernie Taupin. Taupin is the McCartney to John’s, well, John, and Bell conveys moments of understanding, heartache and joy without saying much. It is a subtle but effective supporting turn. Richard Madden is John’s boyfriend and manager John Reid (also known for managing Queen and appearing in “BoRap”). Just like in that film, Reid is not portrayed in the best of light, although here he is more of a genuine bad person instead of just a business-first manager. It’s a fine one-note performance by Madden, but we’ve seen it.
For years now people have complained that all biopics follow the same beats and story structures; John C. Reilly even made an entire film satirizing it with “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” So “Rocketman” chooses to look at those complaints and turn them on their head, putting its musician in an actual musical. Characters break into song at dinner tables or sprint around neighborhoods as mailmen and dog walkers dance behind them, that sort of thing. Some of the sequences have such energy and passion that it really makes you hungry for what a Beatles biopic could be like. Most of the time the numbers work and are staged well, although on one or two occasions they seem out of place.
Also, for being an R-rated “hold nothing back” story of a rockstar’s life, the film feels pretty tame. It can be argued that if the sex scene was between a man and a woman it could possibly receive a PG-13 rating, and most of the time we see Elton doing drugs is just in montage. It isn’t until the final 20 minutes when suddenly everything gets pushed to the top of the pile, all the problems we only kind of saw pop out, so the film rushes to deal with them.
And speaking of rushing, there is no sense of time in this film. I think it is somewhat lazy when films use time stamps to explain the passage of time, but depending on how you use it it could be fine. “Rocketman” gives no date of when we are following four-year-old Elton and then the jumps around his career can seem jarring. There is a sequence that literally jumps four years in a matter of seconds, and I only know that time amount because I looked it up after; the film makes it seem like the literal next day.
“Rocketman” wins some points because of the songs it features (the titular “Rocket Man” song is one of the top 10 tracks ever recorded) and its guts to try something new with a worn genre. It may not perfectly stick the landing, but Egerton’s engaging performance and the flamboyant costumes keep you distracted when the story may not be.
Critic’s Rating: 6/10