Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Jason Pennycooke, Charlie Rowe, Gemma Jones, Kit Connor, Kamil Lemieszewski, Steven Mackintosh, Jimmy Vee, Rachel Muldoon, Celinde Schoenmaker, Sharon D. Clarke, Tate Donovan
Written by Lee Hall
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Produced by Adam Bohling, David Furnish, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn
Executive producer, Elton John
Featuring songs by Elton John and Bernie Taupin
Music producer, Giles Martin
Musical score by Matthew Margeson
Cinematography by George Richmond
Edited by Chris Dickens
“Rocketman,” the film biography of Elton John, is worthy of many accolades, so it’s not overstating the case or being overly enthusiastic to boldly proclaim that the movie is superb and excellent on every filmic level, original, unique, inventive, wholly entertaining—and, easily, the best movie released so far this year, 2019. (That’s not taking anything away from the equally excellent film biography “Tolkien,” which of course remains an excellent film on every level, also!) But “Rocketman” soars to the skies due to its consistently original approach, atmosphere, mood and overall goal of twisting and turning the film musician biography into something new, fresh and simply inventive. Yes, the basic story is familiar and generally the same as many other film biographies of musicians, but that doesn’t matter, really, because the reality is that many of these stories are indeed the same in real life and on screen—that’s just true. But what matters, of course, is how these similar stories are told in their respective films, and how they succeed in being distinctively filmic, entertaining, smart and talented in the finished film. Thus “Rocketman,” despite telling a morality tale of the dangers of success, along with many other important themes, morals and messages, succeeds in all these filmic areas, firing and burning off its fuses in an original manner on explosive levels from start to finish.
“Rocketman” is a musical rock pop joyride through the turbulent, difficult–and, yes, incredibly successful–rollercoaster ride that has been Elton John’s life. What makes “Rocketman” stand out is that the film is a musical–not a jukebox musical, not just a biography with live performances of John’s and Taupin’s songs–but a flat-out, good old-fashioned, classic movie musical–with elaborate, wonderfully produced and beautifully staged and choreographed rock and pop musical fantasy production numbers–in the tradition of the very best musicals. The songs, though, are John’s and Taupin’s, and the manner in which the writer, director, actors and producers use these classic songs to tell John’s story is simply—again–original, inventive–and instantly classic. If “original” and “inventive” and “unique” are repeated in describing “Rocketman,” that’s because the movie succeeds in reaching those accolades, and that point needs to be driven home to assure people that the movie is not just another cookie-cutter film musician biography.
“Rocketman” also has a stunning, bravura, instantly-classic lead performance by the always-on, simply amazing actor Taron Egerton–who beautifully becomes Elton John, and who carries this film from the moment he first appears on screen on to the very end. Egerton simply delivers an amazing, for-the-history-books performance as Elton John.
This weekend, just get up, get out–and go see “Rocketman.” This is the film to see this year. “Rocketman” is as good a film, as good a film biography, and just as engaging, insightful, inventive and entertaining a film as 2018’s equally-excellent film biography of Freddie Mercury and Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And, yes, indeed, “Rocketman” tells a similar story about a similar person during a similar time in a similar field with many of the similar themes as “Bohemian Rhapsody”—and that can be stated up-front and clearly, because the similarities in the two movies and the two movies’ stories doesn’t harm the quality of either film. Why? Besides the already-frequently-mentioned inventiveness of “Rocketman,” the real-life stories of Freddie Mercury and Elton John are indeed quite similar on, well, dozens of levels. And guess what? As noted, the real-life stories of Freddie Mercury and Elton John also mirror the real-life story of dozens of other similarly-talented musicians whose stories have been told on screen. It’s just true—many musicians’ real lives follow the same basic story, character, plot and subplot storylines. But, again, it’s what a talented cast and crew can do with these stories to make the respective movies entertaining that matters, and it just turns out that “Rocketman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” do indeed tell similar stories about similar people during the same time period–but both films end up being quality, excellent films.
It’s not too early to note that come Academy Awards time for 2019, “Rocketman” should be right in the running for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and for numerous artistic awards, including Costuming, Production Design, Art Direction and Hair and Make-up. Yes, the film is that good. That’s not an over-statement, either. Sometimes, it’s clear when a film clearly stands out, and it’s somewhat easy to pinpoint early-in-the-year releases for being in the running during awards season.
“Rocketman” tells the troubled, tragic, tortured and somewhat difficult story of Elton John’s early years, and what a difficult early life it was for this talented songwriter, piano player, singer, showman, composer and entertainer. Little Reginald Dwight—Elton John’s real, given name—was, however difficult his early life was, also a gifted prodigy piano player, singer and songwriter. At an early age, Dwight/John had a natural ear and eye for playing the piano, interpreting insightful lyrics, appealing to the public as a showman and entertainer, and singing, and fortunately for all of us, he did indeed have some people in his early life who were smart enough to see his natural talent, support him and steer him toward a prestigious—and completely deserved—scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. It’s too bad, though, that much of that support did not—that’s did not—come from his wayward parents. Alas, Reginald’s parents were cold, distant, uncaring and even somewhat mentally abusive—his dad would not and could not connect with, be affectionate with and even love the adorable, smart, engaging and talented young Reggie, and his mother was a floozy, apathetic, immature and overly-negative, somewhat evil witch of a mother much of the time. Fortunately for all of us, Reggie’s wonderfully understanding, caring and supportive grandmother Ivy (beautifully, sympathetically and lovingly played by the great British actress Gemma Jones) was there to steer Reg to his piano, singing and music studies, to understand him, to help him and to be the parental figure that he needed. Jones is absolutely wonderful in an important role, and she shines on screen, often bringing to mind the types of understated, sympathetic, kind-hearted characters often played by Jean Stapleton or Maureen Stapleton—simple, caring, down-to-earth, loving people. The first of many important themes and messages in “Rocketman” is presented early and then often throughout the film: simply, that everyone needs the full, unconditional support of their parents in life; that parents need to support their children in all of their endeavors—including the arts, and especially the arts; that parents cannot ever turn their backs on their children, give up on their children and fail to understand who their children are and what their children do in life; that grandparents need to be an essential and active part of all kids’ lives; that when parents fail in the support of their children, grandparents need to step in—actively, strongly and even legally; and that, of course, parents need to also support their children when their children are struggling with their sexual orientation and identity.
The latter point is also an essential and important theme in “Rocketman” simply because Elton John is gay, and he struggled with his sexual orientation early in life, much like many gay people do, and especially during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when society’s and people’s attitudes, policies, programs and actions toward gays were stuck in the dark ages—horribly, horrifically, scarily, illegally and nightmarishly discriminatory, hateful, evil, backwards, ignorant and just plain stupid. Of course, many people are still stuck in those dark ages today, in 2019, but of course society has indeed come a long way in accepting and approving gay rights and gay rights policies worldwide. However, as John discovered during the early years of his career, he still had to struggle to keep his sexual orientation—his gay life—in the closet and hidden from the public, lest his fans and society and even his record labels and business backers abandon him. Yes, this is the same story as Freddie Mercury on this point—but, again, this is indeed what happened in real life with Elton John and with Freddie Mercury. Thus, another important set of messages, morals, themes and messages that are presented in “Rocketman:” simply, that there are gay people in this world and there always have been; that gays should not have to struggle in life with their sexual orientation; that gays should not be discriminated against; that gay people are present in every aspect and level of society—including rock and roll and popular music, including much of the world’s most successful rock and roll and popular music songs, albums, bands, musicians, songwriters and singers.
“Rocketman” follows Elton John after his early years as a prodigy music student and pre-teen and teen performer into his young adult life, as he starts to develop his performing persona, as he meets the man who would become his songwriter partner and friend—but not lover, as many people thought—for the next fifty years and counting, Bernie Taupin (wonderfully portrayed by a level-headed, down-to-earth and often-understated Jamie Bell, presenting Taupin as he really was—a lyricist, a songwriter, an incredibly talented songwriter, but not so much the flamboyant and attention-grabbing showman that John was in life. And as John and Taupin start to develop their incredible songwriting partnership, well, the filmic story, the real life story, the fantasy musical story, the movie itself, takes off from a great first act to great second, third and even fourth acts, all telling a riveting story of rock and pop music business success and dangers of success, with, as mentioned, all of the familiar plot points that often exist in such a tale: the early struggles by John and Taupin to gain attention, be heard, be respected and be signed to a label; the early struggles by the pair to get decent performing gigs and jobs; the difficulties by the pair with record company executives and managers; the difficulties of winning over club owners and audiences; the difficulties with the business and management side of the music business; the dealings with business sharks, dogs, rats and other music business vermin and slimeballs; the underlying difficulties in maintaining personal, family, business and personal relationships amid the business itself and amid the struggles that John dealt with in, as mentioned, in regards to his inherent gay sexual orientation; and, yes—because it’s true—John’s difficulties with his admitted many other personal demons—alcoholism, drug addiction, anger management issues, shopping addiction, and the psychological after-effects and post-traumatic effects of his family problems and relationships.
All of this is presented throughout “Rocketman,” but if this sounds like the movie is a downer or depressing in any manner—think again. “Rocketman” is never a downer, never depressing, and always, at its core, positive, uplifting, optimistic and, in the end, empowering. Because there is a major, overriding factor to all of this that is obvious, and known, and understood: Elton John and Bernie Taupin remain one of the most talented, creative and successful songwriting duos in rock and pop history, and they overcome all of these music biz demons and obstacles to rise above the slime, to persevere, to succeed, to indeed win over all those doubters and managers and club owners and hangers-on and fans to not just succeed, but to succeed in a grand, historic manner—as we all know! John and Taupin, eventually during the last fifty years, ended up producing a glorious, wondrous, beautiful soundtrack to the lives of several generations, producing, of course, scores of classic standard rock and roll songs and albums. And Elton John added to the John-Taupin songbook and catalogue grand contributions later in his career via his work on “The Lion King,” the stage musical version of the film “Billy Elliott,” and “Aida,” among other works.
Thus, another important theme, moral and message presented in “Rocketman:” Simply, that no matter what obstacles and crap life throws at you, if you believe in yourself and your inherent talents, and if you work hard, follow your own path and refuse to let the naysayers, neversayers, love-deniers, slimeballs, the drugs and alcohol and sexual struggles, and even the nagging psychological family problems bring you down, then there is chance to succeed at what you love and who you are. This is what John and Taupin did—they persevered. They may have had to struggle to reach their success, but they persevered. And that fight to succeed is clearly presented in “Rocketman,” and although that fight and success had many bumps in the road—some bumps so threatening they threatened to derail that success—John and Taupin nevertheless kept fighting and overcame their demons and the music business demons. That’s one of the many encouraging, positive aspects of the movie to enjoy.
But, really, the main, overriding general filmic aspects of “Rocketman” are what makes this film soar. There’s so much credit go around, but the credits start, as noted with Egerton and his mesmerizing performance as John. And it’s an all-out-there, gutsy, bravura performance. Egerton—with John’s full approval in real life, it should be noted—portrays John at his best and, often, at his worst. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat John’s life, complexities and negative aspects. In fact, the movie openly and honestly presents John at times as somewhat unlikeable—bitter, angry, dour, self-absorbed, wallowing in drugs and drinking, treating people in a negative manner. But, in the movie as in real life, John would counter his downside with that inescapable talent—and counter-lovable nature. John was, and is, of course, a brilliant singer, piano player, songwriter, composer, showman and entertainer, and no matter how bad things were at times, he knew that the show must go on, and he soldiered on for years, giving his life—literally, nearly giving his life, finally—to his craft and his fans. John gave and gave—until he had no more to give and literally almost died. Egerton portrays all of this—the lovable, the likeable and the unlikeable in John, and that’s not easy for any actor to do. It’s all up there in the story and on the screen.
Of course, so much credit is due to director Dexter Fletcher. Will moviegoers see directing similarities between “Rocketman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody?” Of course they will—because Fletcher is the uncredited director who took over “Bohemian Rhapsody” from Bryan Singer. Fletcher has a knack and skill and talent for telling these complex musician film biographies on many levels—directing his actors to great performances, spot-on casting, quality period detail in art and production, hair and make-up, sets and props, unique camerawork—but it’s his devotion to those wonderfully entertaining musical fantasy numbers that, again, really are responsible more than anything else previously mentioned here to lift up “Rocketman.” Fletcher takes John’s and Taupin’s songs and uses them to tell the story—just like in traditional musicals—and the lyrics, meanings and messages of every song tie in directly and accurately to exactly what is going on in the story and the movie. And he uses these classic rock and pop songs as musical production numbers—with elaborate choreography, staging, camera work and acting. No, the song are not presented chronologically as they were released in real life—but that doesn’t matter. Yes, the movie suddenly breaks into elaborate song-and-dance numbers—and that’s wonderful. And, yes, Egerton sang the songs, according to a recent story in Esquire magazine. But it’s these musical production numbers that lift this movie—and, often, it’s not just song-and-dance numbers, but something else. To reveal some of the musical number surprises would be spoilers, but rest assured that some of these scenes are unlike many other movie musical song-and-dance numbers. It’s fantasy—but it’s fantasy that connects directly to the over-arching incredible story that moves the movie forward. When you have a real life and music business life as complicated, contradicting and larger-than-life as John’s was and is, fantasy is a fitting device to tell these stories.
And much credit needs to go out to the production design, art direction, props, set construction, costuming, hair and make-up crews on “Rocketman,” as they all worked incredibly hard to present various sets, scenes, costuming, hair and make-up stretching all the way from the 1950s up to the 1980s. That’s not easy for any crew on any movie or stage production, but look closely at the period details throughout “Rocketman,” and the details from various time periods are all there—from 1950s-era conservative styles to hippie and counter-culture and love generation styles from the ‘60s and ‘70s to even early ‘80s new wavish styles. And note the period recreations of an early 1970s Hollywood and Los Angeles—with incredible streetscape reproductions from that time—and the amazing concert arena reproductions from the 1970s arena rock era. Add to this the ever-changing costumes and hairstyles of everyone involved in the story, and all of the production and art and craft crews were working over-time on this film.
“Rocketman’s supporting cast is excellent. It’s fun and quite interesting to note that Bernie Taupin is played by Jamie Bell—yes, that Jamie Bell who played Billy Elliott in the movie of the same name from 2000! And, of course, it was Elton John who eventually worked on the songs for the musical stage version of “Billy Elliott.” And—bear with this, please—John worked with “Billy Elliott’s” screenwriter Lee Hall on the musical stage version of “Billy Elliott.” And it’s none other than Lee Hall who is screenwriter for “Rocketman.” Bryce Dallas Howard succeeds in a difficult role as John’s mother, and Richard Madden equally succeeds in another difficult role as John’s business manager, John Reid. Interestingly—again showing how similar the stories of Elton John and Freddie Mercury are—Reid also managed Queen for several years, and he was also a character in “Bohemin Rhapsody.”
And, thus, Hall deserves much credit for his screenplay for “Rocketman.” Hall not only cleverly crafts the musical fantasy elements for the film, but he delivers the aforementioned morals, themes and messages to give the film and the screenplay much depth and intelligence—and he also, as mentioned, still keeps the movie uplifting, positive and entertaining throughout. And, also as mentioned, his screenplay—even with Elton John as one of the movie’s executive producers and with John’s husband David Furnish as one of the movie’s producers—includes all of John’s demons, addictions, problems and darker moments. The movie manages to be a musical fantasy, but, much like some other darker, more reality-based musicals such as “Chicago” or “Cabaret,” the movie manages to be real, too. Thus, Hall deserves credit for a multi-layered, complex screenplay.
Lee Hall, it should be noted, wrote the screenplays for the films “Billy Elliott” (2000); “War Horse” (2011); “Victoria and Abdul” (2017); and this year’s upcoming screen version of “Cats,” which is scheduled to be released in December, 2019.
Finally, a few quotes from a recent story on “Rocketman” in Rolling Stone provide some insight into the film from Egerton and Fletcher.
The next two paragraphs are from Rolling Stone:
“It was a brilliant idea to have Taron play Elton,” says Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher. “ Taron has a very innate, likable, vulnerable quality that not a lot of leading men easily find.”
For Taron, the challenge was finding the real person underneath the legend. “He’s a very unusual character and he has a lot of contradictions,” says Egerton. “He’s both at once incredibly vulnerable and incredibly intimidating… There’s a spark in him and you feel it when you meet him. There’s something and it’s not something you can define.”
There is definitely a spark in “Rocketman,” and that spark lights the fuses of filmic ingenuity to produce a movie musical musician biography that will light up the screens this summer as much as any old gold Chevy, as much as Suzy and those Friday nights, as much as hopping and bopping to the Crocodile Rock.