Coming off of the heels of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman takes a deep and creative dive into the tumultuous life of music megastar Elton John as portrayed by the captivating young actor Taron Egerton. While having cleaned up well in the box office and setting a record as the highest-grossing music biopic in history, Bohemian did face some criticism for not going far enough in its portrayal of Freddie Mercury’s infamous decadence. Rest assured that Rocketman, which unfolds as part musical, part therapy session, and certainly full catharsis as a result for the man it portrays is far more open about the highs that are achieved and the lows that are sunk to than the aforementioned Bohemian.
Starting off with conceptual flare, the first scene in the movie begins with Sir Elton embarking off stage into a group rehab session, devil costume and all to dig down to the roots of his troubles- flashing back to his childhood self in a loveless post-war household in England, finding solace only in his prodigious skill on the piano and the records of the house that continued to influence him. His discovery of Elvis Presley and other 1950s rock and roll monoliths leads him further down the path of working the bar circuit at a young age (set to the 1975 hit “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fightin’”), playing with Bluesology and then eventually meeting longtime lyrical collaborator Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell. It is worth noting that while Rami Malek lip-synced to Queen’s greatest hits in his portrayal of Mercury, Taron Egerton is hands-and-lungs-on in his approach by singing the many gems of Elton’s catalogue himself and dancing along to them too in Rocketman’s many musical interludes.
Also worthy of note is the numerous historical inaccuracies as noted on Wikipedia and elsewhere, which to those more knowledgeable in Eltonology may prove a bit of a hindrance to the film overall. The most obvious is the assertion that John and Taupin never had an argument; not only by evidence of the 1969 diary entry in the Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy liner notes that states “Had row with Bernie,” but by the fact of two scenes in the movie that look clear as day like arguments: The first, as Bernie leaves Elton at Mama Cass Elliot’s house to bed down with a woman, and another, later, as Elton terminates his relationships with both his mother and Bernie as he nose-dives into a debauched downward spiral. Up until that point, however, Elton rises to meteoric heights following his 1970 Troubadour debut (he quite literally levitates off the stage), with Bernie as an asexual companion, right-hand man and cherished wordsmith throughout one of the wildest rides imaginable.
While Sir Elton continues on his external ascension and antes up on his excess and flamboyancy (set to “Honky Cat”, primarily), the seeds of his internal downfall begin to sprout- not only from the cruelty and indifference of his parents who dispense with him and tell him he’ll die alone, but in one John Reid- yes, the same John Reid that coincidentally screwed over Freddie Mercury some years later and was portrayed by Aidan Gillen in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Starting from their original meeting and tryst at Mama Cass Elliot’s party, said dark triad case Reid, portrayed by Richard Madden exerts greater (and worse) influence over Elton as time goes on and eventually makes him dependent on him for belonging and security- only to be forced back on stage after a series of suicide attempts, bled for his money, and eventually cheated on personally. While Elton had broken off the parasitic relationship with Reid by the mid-1970s and afterwards descended further into substance-addled despair, it is not mentioned in the film that Reid remained Elton’s manager long after until 1998. For what reasons, especially anyone watching the film, who knows, but it is at least a positive turning point, the necessary rock bottom for the hero to hit before anything can change.
After Reid is gone on a personal level, and nothing, from drugs to alcohol to his grandiose costumes or a short-lived heterosexual marriage can hide away his internal pain, it is time to come (and get) clean. After various snippets of the addictions roundtable throughout the film, it finally comes full circle with Elton, feeling relieved of a massive, lifelong burden of trouble coming away no longer needing the validation of any of his peers or family; on a new path to seek his own happiness. Once more he reconciles with Bernie Taupin, and while unsure that he could return to his career in the same form without a substance of some sort or another, is encouraged by his songwriting partner to show the world the Hercules in Elton Hercules John again.
This he certainly does, with the film ending with the creation, playing and filming of the famed music video of “I’m Still Standing” from Too Low For Zero. Since the song came out in 1983, it is added, Elton John has lived sober for 28 years as of the making of Rocketman, and far happier off after marrying and having surrogate children with advertising executive David Furnish. On that note, the final lights go down.
Like Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman serves both as a look back into the long-gone music industry of yesteryear and a cautionary tale about fame in general. Not everything is so gold and glamorous, especially when monumental troubles precede the ones that come with a massive surge in pressure and popularity. Fame can be a luxury, but certainly not a fix for any problem. Neither is the subject, while some factual or creative liberties are obviously taken, glorified or overly embellished, and the effort is put in to shed the veneer of celebrity and show a tragically flawed human being enduring hell and success at the same time and revealing the good, bad and the ugly of himself that none or very few fans would ever had got to experience.
With the additional factor of a conceptual approach to a movie of this nature; i.e making it more like a carefully constructed musical, Rocketman helps to continue an intriguing trend in music biopics of legendary artists, helping them in one end to breathe new life into their careers and expose themselves to new generations, and on the other revealing the truth behind myths, mysteries and facts in a world that demands information. It also might- just might- inspire a whole new crop of future superstars to achieve further greatness down the road.