Rocketman movie review: Elton John biopic captures the musician's troubled life — tantrums, tiaras and all
The Elton John biopic Rocketman is a moving portrait of a man looking for love in all the wrong places amid the maelstrom of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
Biopics nowadays feel more and more like sanitised scrapbooks of illustrated Wikipedia pages. Not Rocketman. The Elton John biopic, which premiered at Cannes 2019, not only rises above the insight of a Wiki page but it leaps at you with such joy, colour and grandeur you cannot reject it. Kingsman star Taron Egerton captures the unbound power of the popular British musician in his element — tantrums, tiaras and all.
Dexter Fletcher gives a duly reverent and indulgent treatment of a man who confounds a culture still trying to define him. But like most biopics of rockstars, it is guilty of many cliches: its from-tiny-acorns-grow-mighty-oaks story; the manipulative manager who isolates him from all those who love and care about him; the sex, drugs and booze; and the fall from grace before eventual rehabilitation and redemption.
But unlike the recent Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (which was salvaged by Fletcher after Bryan Singer was fired), Rocketman is more frank about John's sexual identity.
The film begins with John marching down the hallway of a rehab facility, dressed in an orange sequined jumpsuit complete with feathered wings and devil horns, after having bailed on a performance at Madison Square Garden. In his 12-step AA meeting, he recounts his story tracing his life from the age of six. Through flashback, we meet young Reginald Dwight — the “fat kid from nowhere” raised in an unhappy household with a resentful mother (Bryce Dallas Howard affecting a British accent) and an emotionally distant father (Steven Mackintosh). Only his doting grandmother (Gemma Jones) takes an active interest in his burgeoning musical talent, encouraging him to study at the Royal Academy of Music.
He channels all his anger, sadness and frustration with his parents into his music. He befriends lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who helps him write the words to his music. With their fruitful partnership, he soon blossoms into a bonafide rockstar. We see him fall in love with John Reid (Richard Madden), from the first blush of affection to its inevitable end.
However, with fame and fortune comes that holy trinity of hedonism: booze, drugs and sex. One decidedly toxic gay romance later, he "starts acting like a c*** in 1975...and forgets to stop." On stage, he is Elton John, the flamboyant rockstar. Off it, he is still struggling with the repercussions of his unhappy childhood.
Rocketman uses opulent musical sequences to dramatise important events in Elton John's life. Though they all look stunning and choreographed seamlessly — with lavish decor and wild costumes, some of them seem redundant and long-drawn-out. In one of the most delightful sequences, Egerton's John is seen performing "Crocodile Rock" at the Troubadour in Los Angeles — a performance so energetic and effervescent John seems to levitate over his piano. The audience are literally swept off their feet as they too begin to levitate.
Once your eyes adjust to the glitz and operatic grandeur of his life, Rocketman becomes a moving portrait of a man looking for love in all the wrong places amid the maelstrom of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Distilling John's life into a highly entertaining piece of music history, the film ends with the anthem “I’m Still Standing”, sending a clear message of John's strength and resilience in the face of various adversities.
Rocketman has burnt out his fuse. But he's come back down to Earth and he's alone no more.
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