As Elton John struggled with his identity through his early adult through middle age years, “Rocketman” wrestles with its genre and purpose. Is the film a celebration of the music of an iconic artist and pop-culture figure, or is it a story that offers greater insight into the man behind the costumes and eyeglasses. In trying to be both, each part, and the film as w whole is diminished.
Some people would prefer the former while others the latter. Perhaps a predictor of who would like which is those who enjoy Greatest Hits albums will likely leave Rocketman more satisfied than those who prefer the style concepts and story construction of individual albums.
Those desiring a celebration of music will likely respond to the film’s creative use of the music to reflect many of the emotions and struggles of the music icon’s celebrated and challenging life. However, impressive as the music and choreography are during these sequences, some will experience a disconnect. The songs and life situation they are connected to make it seem as if the songs were written about Elton’s life, when, as Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, they are more reflective of his life and experiences than his writing partner, friend and artistic brother.
Additionally, one of the film’s central performance pieces is the wonderfully choreographed and edited montage of Elton performing Pinball Wizard. While a hit and movie role for Elton I’m sure Pete Townsand hopes everyone remembers it is his and The Who’s mega-hit.
Those who are looking for experiential insight into the music, and men whose partnership created one of pop music’s preeminent catalogues, will likely be more disappointed in the film. Viewers will leave with only a cursory awareness that Reggie Dwight was considered a musical prodigy, that he came from a dysfunctional home where he was emotionally neglected save for love given to him by his grandmother, and he spent much of his life trying to fill that void. For fans and those familiar with Elton’s biography, this is not news.
Again the primary consequence of trying to be both a celebration of music and a biopic film, Rocketman is only able to cover the highlights of Elton’s life and music. Left out were the deeper cuts of music and nuanced insight into his life struggles and especially his recovery.
Most disappointing was the lack of any mention of Elton’s relationship with Ryan White, a teen from Indiana with hemophilia who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in 1984
After being diagnosed and treated for AIDS, Ryan and his family were shunned by the School district, their church and many residents and businesses in the community. Upon hearing of their struggles Elton reached out to the family and developed a relationship with Ryan and his mother Jeanne. Elton was with Ryan when he died and sung one of his and Taupin’s earliest songs, Skyline Pigeon at Ryan’s 1990 funeral. Elton credits Ryan and Jeanne for helping inspire him to finally achieve and maintain sobriety.
At one point in the film, Elton seeks and receives solace from his younger self, Reggie Dwight. It is disappointing that film did not depict the actual comfort and strength Elton received from a child who experienced and overcame similar rejection and isolation that had such a traumatic impact on so much of Elton’s adult life. Also in a time when fear fueled anger toward “others” and those “different” is again on the rise, a reminder of the transformative courage and grace of Ryan White could perhaps have spoken to many.
From a technical standpoint the film stands out with treasure trove of exceptional cinematography, production design, editing, and hair & makeup. It goes without saying that costume design, much of which was modeled after Elton’s one of a kind costumes and sense of style was dynamic. Lastly the musical score, based on Elton’s songs, is naturally a tremendous strength.
Taron Egerton (Kingsmen: The Secret Service) resembles John in both look and singing without coming across as trying and for an exact imitation.
Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Fantastic Four) a bit more artificial in his presentation of the famously more reserve partner and lyricist Bernie Taupin.
Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) offers a convincing performance as seductively smooth and manipulating John Reid, Elton’s lover and business manager. As the One time manager for Queen, Reid was portrayed in both Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody (Aiden Gillen.)
Director Dexter Fletcher’s (Bohemian Rhapsody) direction is ambitious and at times audacious, but it’s hard to imagine subtlety in a biopic or musical celebration of Elton John and or his music.
In spite not reaching its intended orbit, watching Rocketman is an enjoyable experience, especially for those who experienced the music, the times, and the celebrated life of the former Reginald Kenneth Dwight.