Growing up I was introduced to music through numerous rock icons including the immortal Sir Elton John. Everything from “Rocketman” and “Crocodile Rock” to “Saturday Nights Alright” and one of my all-time favorite songs “Your Song” helped define my childhood and the way I looked at the world and the idea of musical entertainment. So when I learned there was going to be a biopic about the famously flamboyant Brit I knew I needed to see it for myself. Sadly, due to life, I was unable to see it over its opening weekend, but I finally had the opportunity to check it out and see how it handles the career and life story of one of rock music’s most famous figures. Billed as a “musical fantasy”, “Rocketman” has been released in a wave of similar biopics with 2018’s Oscar-winning “Bohemian Rhapsody” and 2019’s “The Dirt” both leading the charge and creating mixed responses from the public about how studios should properly handle the stories of iconic musical acts. So, with my own lofty expectations and an established reputation for the genre it had to fend off and improve on, how well does “Rocketman” get the job done? Well, let’s take a look. This is my review of “Rocketman”.
“Rocketman” stars Taron Egerton as Elton John, the famous British singer who became a sensation not long after his debut in the 1960s. A musical prodigy, John suffers a jagged family life having no relationship with his distant father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and suffering passive-aggressive emotional abuse from his mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard). The film follows Elton’s rise to fame from his start in the Royal Academy of Music to his musical partnership with songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his abusive relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and his struggles with substance abuse, depression, and an identity crisis over his sexuality and public image. As we experience Elton John’s life through his own eyes, the lines between the fantasy of fame and the personal torture he faced in his reality are blurred through musical numbers and revelations that helped the famed and troubled artist turn his life around in the 1990s.
So right from the start, I will declare I absolutely LOVED this movie! Not since “Walk the Line” have I seen a musical biopic that has so evenly explored the fame and personal torture of an artist as well known as Elton John. Going into the film I promised myself I would take off the fan goggles to try and grade the film with a critical eye. Even then “Rocketman” drew me right in from the start and had me hooked as both a fan and a critic from the very first line and very first note. “Rocketman” is an unforgiving look at the torture its subject dealt with in a world that he felt wouldn’t allow him to be who he is and that seemed to feel him undeserving of feeling bad about life thanks to his money and fame. Several films have tried to explore this in the past and some succeeded, but few in the same manner as “Rocketman” which balances the good with the bad by exploring both the fantasy and reality of a life of musical fame. A lot of John’s demons are heavily explored including his drug addiction, complicated relationships with his parents, his destructive relationship with John Reid who strangely enough was also included in a slightly more positive light in the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and his significant and iconic relationship with his co-writer Bernie Taupin. But the downs in his life are balanced with the positives. Many scenes embrace the “fantasy” aspect of Elton John’s persona and style giving us a slightly embellished look at how he saw the world as an entertainer. In awesome fashion, “Rocketman” offers great contrast between harsh reality and the satisfying fantasy of fame justifying John’s love for the work but also revealing the dark and destructive behavior he embraced to cope with and maintain that fame.
This approach to storytelling is heavily supported by awesome performances by pretty much all of the cast members involved. Taron Egerton is a true star and an awesome pick to portray Elton John capturing his look, mannerisms, and embracing the personal torture that John underwent during his highlight years prior to the 90s. At times he’s delightfully entertaining and embraces the whimsy but at other times he takes himself into some downright dark places in order to capture John’s depression and self-destruction. His vocal performances aren’t bad either. In fact, I think all of the singing was spot on and while I’ll talk more about the soundtrack in a minute I thought it pretty neat that Egerton wasn’t the only vocalist in the cast as many characters got to share the spotlight taking on renditions of Elton’s famous songs.
Jamie Bell is a surprisingly enjoyable Bernie Taupin and allows Egerton to shine while serving as the grounding supporting character he needs to be. Richard Madden plays a truly devious and despicable version of John Reid while Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh, Stephen Graham and others play significant figures in John’s life and completely sell their characters in ways that don’t always vilify or glorify their real-life counterparts but do make you question how these people may have played an important role in John’s self-destructive behavior or even his success. Together they work to share important themes of self-identity and learning to let go of abusive and toxic relationships while not being afraid to walk away from things that are destroying you even if you think they are responsible for the things that make your life worthy. An important lesson Elton John learns by the end of the film is that he can’t be afraid to walk away from the things that torture him just because he fears if he can succeed without them. What is the point of success if it destroys you? He also constantly feels that he is not worthy of love as he is a homosexual, causing him to cling to an abusive relationship for fear of being unloved. These are powerful, relevant and important messages that many films try to capture but few can ever seem to accomplish like “Rocketman” does.
The soundtrack is also an impressively handled aspect of this movie. As I said most of the vocal performances are spot and Taron Egerton is not the only performer in this picture. Numerous actors join Egerton to perform some of John’s most iconic songs giving “Rocketman” a neat jukebox musical vibe. This approach succeeds especially well here because the songs are worked into the narrative, literally presenting John’s discography as the soundtrack of his life. At times he sings songs relevant to his current situation and at other times their presented as the result of his artistic process. While this does mess with the reality of when these songs were written or conceived, it allows for viewers to relate John’s creative mindset to the struggles and experiences he faces in his life along the way giving great insight into his inspiration and emotional connection to his work.
To me, this is the ultimate example of why “Rocketman” is superior to many of its fellow musical biopics. It embraces a creative and fun way of working the iconic songs into the story without them feeling forced or out of place. It balances a fantasy perspective and a certain amount of realism while keeping that visual flair that explores John’s unique style and showmanship. The music compliments the action and pushes the story forward rather than feeling like pandering add-ons to remind you you’re watching an Elton John movie. And I’ll say as a fan it was a lot of fun to be able to sing along with the music without being taken out of the film. I sang every word to “Your Song” when it came on and rocked out when tunes like “Crocodile Rock” started playing. Yet my attention never left the screen. I was glued to the action and the context of these tunes in relation to the story being told. “Rocketman” managed to grip me and entertain me in several different ways at the same time, providing me with a soundtrack I desperately wanted to enjoy without me ever losing interest in the film’s story. That’s hard to do and it’s an aspect of this particular movie I admit I was not prepared to appreciate making it all the more enjoyable and pleasantly surprising.
If there is something to criticize in “Rocketman” it’s simply that while it is definitely an imaginative and unique take on the musical biopic and honors a musical legend’s struggles and fame nicely, it does follow a lot of conventions. This might be simply a consequence of the medium, but while “Rocketman” doesn’t take near as many creative liberties as other films it’s still not a precise interpretation of Elton John’s real journey. The origin of his stage name and the timing of a lot of events in his life are some easy examples of things changed for the sake of cinematic presentation while the rehab discussion that serves as the framing device for the story is completely false as Elton John didn’t enter rehab until the 90s and for different reasons than explained in the film. Even if you’re willing to endure some creative license there are still some generic genre tropes to consider including the montage of successful career moments to move right to his fame and fortune and some clearly overdramatized interactions that felt a little over the top. For example, the relationship between Elton John and Bernie Taupin is said to still to this day to be a flawless, fight free relationship and yet in the film they disagree several times. Either these scenes are exaggerated to add to the drama of the film or they really happened and Elton and Bernie did indeed suffer disagreements the film itself says they didn’t. With any biopic though you have to except a certain amount of creative license. If you can handle a few inaccuracies built in to push the story forward and make it more interesting there really isn’t a whole lot more that could make “Rocketman” an unwatchable experience by any stretch of the imagination.
“Rocketman” is one of the best films I’ve seen all year. It’s a very complete, wonderfully crafted musical biopic about one of the most entertaining and flamboyant music artists to ever live and does justice to both his legacy as a superstar and the very relatable struggles that nearly killed him at the peak of his fame. Few movies have been able to tackle the highs and lows of success and fame the way that “Rocketman” does. The acting is great, the soundtrack is awesome, and the way the film balances the fantasy and reality associated with a life of fame is both entertaining and unforgiving. Despite a bit of creative license “Rocketman” raises the bar for a biopic subgenre that has certainly seen a resurgence over the past few years. Mix in a little bit of spectacle, some fun visuals, and a coherent script and you have yourself one of the best biographical pictures of the last few decades and one worthy of great respect.