Remember that scene in SCHOOL OF ROCK where the character Tomika (Maryam Hassan) timidly tells her enthusiastic substitute teacher Dewey Finn, played by Jack Black, that she doesn’t want to be a roadie, as she’s been assigned? He tries to tell her it’s an important job, but he’ll let her do something else, like security, or…
She’s really trying to tell him she wants to be a singer, but she hesitates, so he doesn’t take her seriously. And then—
That’s Taron Egerton in ROCKETMAN. Oh my goodness, nice pipes, Egerton! I thought I already liked him, because he was good in KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE and LEGEND, and I even kind of enjoyed that fake-Guy-Ritchie version of ROBIN HOOD he starred in. But I thought he was just… a dude, you know? I didn’t see this coming from him. I didn’t know he had this kind of power, to become Elton John. And make me care about Elton John.
The music biopic should probly be seen as a low form of art, like teen dance off movies or video game adaptations. Instead they’re treated as awards bait, in part because they offer unique acting challenges for actors. Think about Sissy Spacek in COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER, Joaquin Phoenix in WALK THE LINE, Jamie Foxx in RAY, Val Kilmer in THE DOORS, Chadwick Boseman in GET ON UP, Don Cheadle in MILES AHEAD, Kurt Russell in ELVIS, Bruce Campbell in BUBBA HO-TEP. To varying degrees these are roles where an actor – in some cases one we are already familiar with and have a certain impression of – has to make us accept him or her as an entirely separate individual who we are likely even more familiar with. They have to look and sound like that person, or at least give enough of an impression that we accept them, in re-creations of iconic moments and in an imagined version of their private moments, and their life before fame. In many cases they have to learn how to pose and dance around and pump up a crowd like that person. Often they have to look like they’re playing an instrument. Often they have to sing. And within all of those challenges they still have to do that usual actor thing of communicating an inner life, an emotional arc.
Egerton does all of that. He looks like Elton John: short, wide, balding, his flair for playfully over-the-top fashion (on stage and off) often emphasizing his regular-human-being looks rather than trying to hide them. (I think it’s kind of cool that an actor can get a role where he doesn’t have to pretend to be taller than he actually is – according to Google, Egerton is one inch taller than John.) He struts and dances around on stage, takes control of the piano like a rustler controls a horse, and he sings! Like, really good. And like Elton John.
And also he conveys the life of this character whose cold, soldier father (Steven Mackintosh, THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL, LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION/RISE OF THE LYCANS) offers him not one ounce of jack shit; whose mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, TERMINATOR SALVATION) manipulates and exploits and is mean to him but pretends like they’re on great terms the whole time; who has to become comfortable with being gay; who has to face that his boyfriend/manager (Richard Madden, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate video game) is bad for him. But he becomes a superstar and a multi-millionaire in his early twenties, and it’s also the ‘70s, so all of these things culminate in him laying in a bathrobe washing down coke with pills with champagne while his family and friends and hangers on have the run of his extravagant mansion.
Admittedly, most of this is dealt with in pretty simplistic terms. The cocaine happens almost entirely in time-passing musical montages, the struggle for sobriety off screen after the storytelling wraparound. But that’s one way ROCKETMAN avoids being standard musician biopic trash: it’s a straight up jukebox musical. Instead of pretending to be reality while clearly being bullshit, ROCKETMAN tells a poetic version of the true story, painted as fantasy. John’s songs are used to talk about his life, sometimes with applicable lines sung by other characters, like a full-on musical or opera. In one great scene a young, pompadoured Reggie Dwight (Kit Connor, READY PLAYER ONE) plays piano for his parents’ friends at the pub. He gets up and dances around, jumps through a window outside, grows into Egerton during a huge dance number before ending up back in the pub with a band.
(Howard as his mom ages so slow that her son seems to get ahead of her for a while, but she has a sudden burst of greying and wrinkling toward the end).
I like that it’s not literal. In one scene he plays so well that gravity ceases to operate, and the audience floats. The settings often look deliberately theatrical, making the sometimes-digital-crowds not so out of place. The visual technique is very flashy. There are many, many scenes where time passes and costumes change during a pan or a spin or a match-cut or a wipe. And as it spans his career it accomplishes that thing that’s important for a musician biopic: it makes me, a person who never gave much thought to Elton John or listened to one of his albums, think “He does seem like an interesting guy” and then “Oh yeah, that is a good song” and “He is a real talent, isn’t he?” and by the end I just want to hear Egerton-as-John sing anything.
So, yeah. Probly better than ROBIN HOOD. Like Eddie Murphy in DOLEMITE IS MY NAME and Paul Walter Hauser in RICHARD JEWELL, this is an outstanding 2019 performance that the Oscars didn’t have room for. But Egerton did get a SAG nomination and he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Good for him. Well deserved.
It definitely treats him as having an innate musical genius. The scenes with the young Reggie playing classical piano, and then finding out about Elvis, are pretty great. But one of my favorite parts involves a bout of self-doubt. When he comes to the U.S. the first time he’s thrilled to be in L.A. and playing The Troubador, but while A&R guy Ray (Charlie Rowe, NEVER LET ME GO) and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN) are doing the kid-in-a-candy-store bit, excitedly naming the celebrities they saw at the bar, Elton is hiding in the bathroom, afraid he’s not worthy of performing for artists he respects.
I hope I’m being clear, this is not the ROCKETMAN where Harland Williams farts in the astronaut suit. This is the one about Elton John. Surprisingly, they did not give Williams scenes in the movie to set up a painfully terrible ROCKETMAN reference, the way BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY did with Mike Meyers/WAYNE’S WORLD.
The setup of the movie is perfect: John, in a ludicrous Elvis-cum-Satan jumpsuit complete with huge, feathery wings, twisty Maleficent horns and heart-shaped glasses, struts down a hall, heroically backlit, swinging open the stage door to triumphantly—
Wait, no, this is not a stage. It looks like an A.A. meeting. He comes and takes a chair in the circle. Nobody else has horns or wings on.
So we start with him at the breaking point when he has decided to get sober, and he narrates his story from childhood to superstardom. I will mark this a SPOILER, but I love how throughout his tale he loses the wings and then pulls off the horns and then the hood and eventually he’s just in a bathrobe and then he’s in a tracksuit and everybody else’s fashion has changed, meaning he’s been in recovery for years, and only then can he build back up into a rock star look. Because now, finally, the costume is the real guy. There’s another probly too-corny-for-some symbolic moment that got me, involving the device of young Reggie appearing to adult Elton John. I don’t know man, when something starts out as a gimmick and ends up being very emotional, that works for me.
But I think the heart of the movie is the friendship between Elton and Bernie. They’re put together almost at random, and immediately hit it off. I like the very matter-of-fact way Bernie rejects a pass from Elton and tells him he loves him, but… And then it’s not really an issue. Bell is very good in a much more understated role than he usually gets, a nice, reasonable dude keeping steady and humble in the middle of a rainbow-colored whirlwind.
It’s hard not to think of this as the Gallant to BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY’s Goofus. After all, it’s directed by Dexter Fletcher, the actor who was in STANDER and DOOM and became a director only to have to take over on that Queen movie after Bryan Singer stopped coming to work. In pretty much every respect it’s a better approach: openly heightened, rather than completely full of shit. Meticulously planned and constructed instead of sloppily slapped together in panicked post-production clean-up sessions. Lead actor who does the singing himself, and also doesn’t spend the entire movie clearly struggling to keep fake teeth from falling out of his mouth and splashing a bunch of spit on everybody. And they have the advantage of a subject who is still alive and producing the movie, so it can just be an inspirational autobiography instead of that thing where we have to give somebody a heightened importance because they died.
John and his company Rocket Pictures have been trying to get this made since the early 2000s. Attached directors included David LaChapelle (RIZE) and Michael Gracey (THE GREATEST SHOWMAN). John initially wanted Justin Timberlake to play him, and for a while it was gonna be Tom Hardy. Matthew Vaughn found out about it during post-production of the KINGSMAN sequel and signed on to produce on the condition that Egerton starred. So give him credit for that. He also picked his old buddy Fletcher to direct. It was always written by Lee Hall (BILLY ELLIOT [both the movie and the stage musical], WAR HORSE, CATS), not a million writers like most movies that are developed over that many years.
I don’t know enough about Elton John to know if they left out famous things that people would expect. There’s a hint of “Candle in the Wind,” but nothing about him being friends with Princess Di. The actual “I’m Still Standing” video (but with Egerton) makes a crucial appearance. One huge oversight: they do not cover GNOMEO AND JULIET at all. Sorry for the bad news but I thought you should know. Otherwise, surprisingly good.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.