Rocketman: A True Rock Opera
By Sandra Olmsted
Director Dexter Fletcher manages to turn Elton John’s breakthrough years in a hybrid between a rock opera and a jukebox musical with a helping of bio-pic. In the operatic moments, “Rocketman” explores the simple theme of the famed musician’s desire to be loved as his life spirals out of control when he first achieves fame and fortune. As a jukebox musical, the film incorporates most of the audience-pleasing songs people expect —minus “Candle in the Wind.” But does a thoroughly enjoyable result really get to the heart of what makes Elton John tick in the way “Bohemian Rhapsody” did for Freddie Mercury and all his father issues?
“Rocketman” uses a framing device of Elton (Taron Egerton) arriving at a group therapy session to contextualize his life story into the dramatic core of the film — Elton’s desire for the love that his childhood lacked. In dramatic fashion, Elton arrives dressed as a sequined devil, and the film’s returns to this therapy session mark the monumental shifts in Elton’s life. Therapy also makes an easy way to chronicle the rock star’s life, from childhood to the decision to get and stay sober, providing a moral lesson which seems to be the message that Elton John, as executive producer, wanted. The exploration of Elton’s earliest years includes the standout performances of Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor as the six-ish- and twelve-ish-year-old Elton when he was still Reginald Dwight.
According to screenwriter Lee Hall’s version, young Reg’s dad was a hard, cold man who passed up every opportunity to get close to his son, even when the child expressed a shared interest in music. Meanwhile, Reg’s self-centered mum Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) was indifferent at best; fortunately, little Reg had his Grandma Ivy (Gemma Jones) to encourage his musical talent and see to it he got opportunities to nurture his talent. Once his father leaves, Fletcher hints that Elton’s mother remarries a man who is kinder to and somewhat more supportive of Reg, which, of course, means Reg’s mum is, too. Then happenstance introduces turns Reg into Elton John and introduces him to Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). So begins the story of Elton John killing the person he was to become the person he was meant to be. While this echoes Freddie Mercury’s rise in Bohemian Rhapsody, Elton’s rise has its own problems. Because Elton is portrayed as a naive and sheltered young man who explodes onto the world stage, his rise focuses on him hiding behind his music as much as his fantastic costumes. There are lots of music dance numbers some Bollywood-esque.
The perfect casting is careful and intelligent, especially Taron Egerton who captures the famed star with his theatrical moves and almost-as-good-as voice. After all, there is only one voice like Elton John’s. The therapy session helps put the emotional transformation of Reg into Elton and then the mature, sober Elton, the consummate performer into psychological contexts. These psychological underpinnings provide more about Reg/Elton’s emotional development — just don’t expect to get it all of it in one viewing of the film. Elton John’s music provides poignancy to his failed relationship with the manipulative John Reid (Richard Madden), who becomes his manager and heartbreak, and Elton’s short-lived marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker), As Elton loses himself in self-loathing, drink, and drugs, even his relationship with Bernie Taupin, the brother Elton never had and always needed, hits bottom when Elton does. While Elton John’s exuberant music is the counterpoint to these painful events, the audience will be happily rocking in their seats. Only later will the messages and pain in those songs and how they relate to the wildness and exuberance of Elton John — the man — be clear. “Rocketman” is rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content and runs 121 rockin’ good minutes.
GIVE THIS 4 STARS