Directed by Dexter Fletcher
How do you tell the story of Elton John’s life? For “Rocketman,” it starts with Elton at rehab, followed by a series of flashbacks. It feels like an awkward set-up, but I’m not sure I could have thought of anything better. Anyway, once you get into the meat of the movie it follows a mostly chronological trajectory, from the young Reginald Dwight’s (played at different ages by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor) introduction to music, to his days as a backup pianist (played by Taron Egerton now), to meeting songwriter and forever collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and manager/lover John Reid (Richard Madden), and eventually to the aforementioned rehab.
Director Dexter Fletcher’s most well-known directing credit is for the 2015 Taron Egerton/Hugh Jackman movie “Eddie the Eagle,” but his uncredited efforts finishing the 2018 Best Picture nominee (ugh!) “Bohemian Rhapsody” is what everyone is talking about in relation to “Rocketman.” It makes sense—when one man has a hand in directing two biopics, in subsequent years, about two world-renowned, gay rock stars, it’s easy for people to want to compare them. But in honesty, “Rocketman” feels more like the 2007 fantasy-musical “Across the Universe,” which used The Beatles catalog to help tell a story by using the music to connect to thematic points in the plot. Only occasionally were these movies concerned with what year the songs were released (this has the added benefit of avoiding chronology issues, like “Bohemian Rhapsody” had when it said “We Will Rock You” was released post-1980, when it actually released in 1977).
“Rocketman” also has actual actors singing with their own mouths and voices. Most of these actors can’t carry a tune in a bucket (they’re the ones we hear the least of, thankfully), but at least they’re trying. And the bad ones make Taron Egerton sound incredible. Don’t get me wrong—he’s good enough without them…he’s no Elton, but he’s good. We knew he could do this role a few years ago when he first recorded an Elton John song for a movie. In 2016’s “Sing,” he voiced a gorilla who sings “I’m Still Standing” for a talent competition. If you want to listen to the song, fine, but please don’t actually watch the movie…take my word, it’s not worth it. In fact, inspiring producer Matthew Vaughn to cast Egerton as Elton John is the best thing to come from “Sing.”
But for as fun and different “Rocketman” is, it also struggles to avoid the common tropes of the musical biopic. There’s the very well-trod scene where the record producer hates a song that, in hindsight, the audience recognizes as a classic. Boring. There’s also the camp that argues making a biopic of someone who’s still alive and active in the making of the movie automatically makes it less trustworthy. True, Elton John’s addictions and flaws are shown on screen, but we’re never asked to actually consider if he’s a bad person. And when the text about Elton John’s philanthropic endeavors flashes on-screen right before the credits roll, you wipe away any doubts you might have had about him. Would it be a different story if we waited until everyone was dead and the filmmakers could be more objective? I don’t know. I’m just saying it’s worth a thought.
Still, “Rocketman” is a fine example of the kind of musical biopic where a rock star’s exploits are explored. I think I understood how it must have felt to be gay and strung-out in the 1980s. To me, getting to know more about Elton John was the point of seeing “Rocketman.” That and some passable covers. I got just enough of both to leave the theater happy and humming.