Movie review: ‘Rocketman’ is true razzle-dazzle
How do you capture the life of a flamboyant musical icon like Elton John? Just follow the lead of director Dexter Fletcher, whose “Rocketman” achieves lift-off under the guise of a glittery jukebox musical as bright and shiny as John’s rhinestone-embellished costumes. Not only is it full of heart and entertaining as hell, it also has Taron Egerton as the man born Reginald White.
Unlike the polarizing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which Fletcher also had a hand in directing, “Rocketman” is a true musical with songs propelling the plot and amplifying the inner thinking and emotions of the characters. Fletcher conjures imaginative fantasy sequences involving levitation, carnivals, barrooms and big dance numbers, all set to those indelible hits penned by John and his longtime collaborator, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell).
“Tiny Dancer” shows a John wanting love more than he wants fame and fortune. “Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)” points to a career about to launch. The title song, “Rocket Man,” comes when John hits rock bottom. Other songs, such as “Benny and the Jets,” “Your Song,” “Crocodile Rock,” “The Bitch is Back,” “Honky Cat” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” equally drive the narrative.
The script, penned by Brit Lee Hall (“War Horse,” “Billy Elliot”), frames around John’s stint in rehab, where the film opens. Egerton wears a burnt orange Lycra onesie bedazzled with feathers, jewels and topped with an oversized horned headdress. He puffs and clumps down a hallway in gigantic platform shoes to storm into group therapy, declaring: “I’m Elton Hercules John, and I’m an alcoholic, cocaine addict, sex addict, bulimic, shopaholic … .” He goes on to list more struggles with weed, prescription pills and anger. “I want to get better.” The story flashes back to his childhood, when little Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) can’t get a hug from his stern father. His mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) isn’t exactly evil, but she’s cold and distracted. His loving Gran (Gemma Jones) is his sole supporter and the one who took the young piano prodigy to London’s Royal Academy of Music.
Over the next two hours, Egerton sings and dances his way through all the beats of John’s life, from humble beginnings to preening rock god. Egerton is an interesting casting choice. He doesn’t look like John or share his build, yet somehow pulls it off, even the vocal and dancing duties. I never felt like I wasn’t watching Elton John. The signature outrageous glasses help. Ditto for the luscious set design and Julian Day’s sparkling costumes.
Never does Hall’s script shy away from the uglier side of John’s life or his struggle with sexual identity. Everything is there: the meltdowns, the drinking, the cheating, the lashing out at Taupin, his one true friend. Each time the script checks back into that opening therapy session, John sheds a piece of that outrageous orange ensemble - until he’s down to his skivvies. What he’s really baring is a repressed soul beaten down by years of emotional abusive wielded by his lover-manager (Richard Madden), his mother (Howard plays her throughout), his “don’t-be-soft” father (Steven Mackintosh) and everyone else who wanted a piece of his success; all except Bernie and Gran. Rehab teaches John to love himself, allowing the rest to fall in place.
I would have loved it if John and Taupin wrote an original song for the film, but that’s just a quibble in a movie that is heartbreaking, funny and ultimately uplifting. One character advises an up-and-coming John to “kill the person you were born to be.” John does, but lucky for us, he’s reborn. In the end, he’s “Still Standing,” and thanks to “Rocketman,” Egerton’s career is about to last a long, long time.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard.
(R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content.)