He’s a Rocketman

You Can’t Trap Him In Your Penthouse: ‘Rocketman,’ a Gaudy, Wild Elton John Biopic

I guess it sucks to be Elton John. The pudgy kid from Pinner, who busted out of Middlesex suburbia to become arguably the most iconic, successful, and enduring pop star of the 1970s, was just the product of a broken home. And his phenomenal talent as a protean balladeer turned him into a booze-guzzling, coke-snorting, bulimic, sex-addicted rageaholic.

ROCKETMAN ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Dexter Fletcher
Written by: Lee Hall
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard
Running time: 121 min

So goes the trajectory of the thoroughly-vetted and officially-authorized Rocketman, a razzle-dazzle biopic that’s about as calculatedly revealing as a VH1 Behind the Music rockumentary. That’s a shame, and maybe even inevitable, since Elton John’s self-destructive travails helped define the template of Me-Decade superstar excess that’s now a ho-hum given. What’s left to shock or surprise?

To their credit, screenwriter Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher take what otherwise would feel like a warmed-over pity party and turn it into an exhilarating gay fantasia, toe-tappingly phantasmagoric and believably earthy in equal measure. Unlike the comparatively straight-laced Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman is an unapologetic jukebox musical, using songs out of order to heighten the emotional weight of an otherwise chronological and fairly familiar story of success, oblivion, and redemption.

Don’t go breaking Rocketman’s heart

It has undeniable entertainment value, especially since John has landed more than 50 Top 40 hits, nine of them chart-toppers. All the classics get pride of place, including radio staples like “Your Song,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” and “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting.” And Taron Egerton’s portrayal of Captain Fantastic is spot-on mimicry that even bests Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury, if only because the po-faced actor actually belts out more than a dozen tunes.

The song-and-dance numbers are a blast, especially a hit-the-big-time shopping spree montage for “Honky Cat” and the dizzying frenetic blur of a touring road warrior for “Pinball Wizard.”  The production gives John’s legendary shows at the Troubadour their body-levitating due, and delivers a surreal underwater dream sequence, equal parts tortured and cathartic, featuring the title track.

Rocketman treats John’s homosexuality with refreshing candor, which is probably the filmmakers’ most radical act. The movie even made headlines earlier this month with the announcement of its R-rated gay love scenes, the first of their kind from a major Hollywood studio. And, by the way, they feel just as banal as any other R-rated love scene from a major Hollywood studio, which ironically makes them even more groundbreaking.

It’s already an impressive slice of mythmaking that Reginald Kenneth Dwight grew up to become Sir Elton Hercules John CBE, a transformation galvanized by all those deliciously gaudy costumes. “My stage gear,” he says curtly at one point, after which everyone takes them as a matter of fact.

If only the savagely hysterical outfits got a film of their own. Those rhinestone eyeglasses, sequined Dodgers uniform, burlesque devil’s outfit, technicolor chicken suit, and Queen Elizabeth regalia were all part of an ever-changing disguise. It clearly formed his armor against a world that forbade gay love. For a film that otherwise purports to be a full-throated confessional, it chooses to present this particular theme sotto voce.

Too bad Rocketman doesn’t delve more deeply into how John used his Brobdingnagian stage persona to protect himself. Instead, it falls back on pithy pathos, like having little Reggie turn to his callous father and say, “When are you going to hug me?” That said, the film’s best line is in a scene where John calls his mom from a pay phone to tell her that he’s gay.  “You’ll never be loved properly,” she says, revealing both her own sexual prejudices as well as a driving fear about seeing a hetero-dominant world crush her beloved child.

Thank God for Bernie Taupin. John’s lyricist pops in and out of the drama, functioning as sounding board, reality check, and ballast as John navigates the choppy waters of fame. The duo’s “I love you, man” bromance becomes John’s most enduring and fruitful partnership, and receives a sober if not overly sentimental place in the story.

Rocketman ultimately functions as a cautionary tale, making it more than just a grandiose onanistic celebration. When talent comes easily, and success comes quickly, can the center hold? That’s where the multimillionaire misery gets its traction, and earns our sympathy: watching manic glee hide a teetering disaster. Of course, the climax is “I’m Still Standing.” It’s corny, but it’s well-earned. And pretty damn catchy, too.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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