Since 1970’s “Your Song” premiered on U.S. radio stations Elton John grown from the most popular singles artist of the 1970s to an accomplished composer for film (Lion King, Road to Eldorado) and theatre (Aida, Billy Elliot the Musical), a leading fundraiser for HIV/AIDS prevention and education, and patient support services and an enduring musical and visual icon. Director Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, anchored by a star making turn by British actor Taron Egerton, depicts the dazzling songcraft, thrilling showmanship and sartorial splendor informing the Elton John legend. He also illuminates the family wounds, personal insecurities and addictive behaviors pulsating beneath the glittering surfaces.
John (born Reginald Dwight in 1947) stands apart from the stereotypically “sensitive” 70s era “singer-songwriter” in several important respects. During the 1970s John relied exclusively on Bernie Taupin to write song lyrics, so he was less prone to lapsing into solipsistic navel-gazing. Even when Taupin’s songs had biographical elements he employed allusions, metaphors and various forms of Western imagery more creatively than most lyricists. Musically, whereas male peers like Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor and Cat Stevens focused on mellow toned folk-based melodies, John was a rock ‘n’ roller and a lover of R&B who could leap from sensitive songs like “Your Song” to rockers (“Saturday’s Alright for Fighting”), soul tunes (“Border Song”), and pop anthems (“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) authentically. John’s songs were as much about listening as they were for dancing. His penchant for customized eyewear and colorful, campy and often rococo costumes solidified him as both an artist and entertainer of the first rank, a description rarely associated with singer-songwriters of his generation. His impact on visual entertainers like Lady Gaga is clear.
Rocketman eschews the hagiographic and literal approach of standard biopics of pop musicians by cloaking its episodic structure in an aural richness and visual grandeur of near operatic portions. Fletcher’s directorial style evokes that of Busby Berkeley and Baz Luhrmann by weaving together key John-Taupin songs with carefully crafted costuming and vibrant choreography to convey milestone moments in John’s life and career. By striving to capture the moods and tones of John’s life, rather than convey each literal detail, Fletcher moves us through John’s life, from childhood through his pursuit of sobriety, in an emotional rather than plot-driven way. At the film’s beginning Edgerton walks down a hallway in an orange Devil costume to an Alcoholics Anonymous type support group. Throughout the film this confessional framing device allows John to narrate his own story and gradually deconstruct himself. As the film flows through time Edgerton gradually removes pieces of the costume to get to the emotional essence below.
What emerges from this approach is a portrait of a fragmented person whose musical genius provided him with tools to perform “normalcy” publicly and channel a well of private emotions, including sadness, rejection, confusion and desire, in the subtexts of his music and Taupin’s lyrics. As such, the tender troubadour of “Your Song” represents him as authentically as does the tongue-in-cheek humor of “Honky Cat” and the pent-up emotion that explodes in “The Bitch is Back” and “Saturday.” The film has several standard narrative biopic tropes, including his struggle to garner love and respect from his parents (distant father Stanley portrayed by Stephen Mackintosh and unpredictable mother Sheila portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard) and his descent from humble artist to demanding “star.” Thankfully, anytime the narrative seems ready to surrender to bland earnestness its collages of music, dance, humor and visual devices transport us to different moments. The film is not impatient or afraid to focus, it simply trusts us enough to let us take in the mood and move on.
From the film we see how essential his grandmother was to him as an early booster of his musical talents and esteem. We witness the organic chemistry between John and Taupin (portrayed gently by Jamie Bell), and how patient Taupin has been. The audience also has access to John’s complex sexuality through viewing an intimate moment with an R&B singer during his pre-fame days, multiple scenes an initially torrid affair with manager John Reid (played tenaciously Richard Middleton) that becomes toxic, and his brief marriage to female recording engineer Renate Blauel (in 1984).
We can see why people are drawn to him and his songs and embrace him with the zeal of the adoring audiences seen in re-creations of several iconic performances including his triumphant 1970s performance at L. A’s Troubadour club and his 1975 performances at Dodger Stadium. The movie continually reminds us that what was initially thrilling became burdensome as “Reginald” the insecure musician craving genuine affection felt increasingly compelled to be “Elton John” the campy, dynamic entertainer who owed his audience everything. This disjuncture between his public and private selves reaches its nadir in a brilliantly staged pool scene, featured in the trailer, where he drifts recklessly and nearly hits rock bottom, the result of numbing depressions and numbing addictions.
As an audience, we know that John rebounds eventually from his slumps and setbacks. But the journey to the present, anchored by Egerton’s stirring versions of John’s songs and sublime embodiment of John’s tenderness and toughness, is a mostly riveting one. Some of the film’s challenges include a flatness to Middleton’s portrayal of Reid, who goes from ally to villain too quickly, and a pop psychology “inner child” narrative that feels simplistic at times. Ultimately though, Fletcher’s keen direction, John and Taupin’s eclectic songs, cinematographer George Richmond and editor Chris Dicken’s creative visualizations and a surfeit of extraordinary performances make this a satisfying feast worthy of its subject.
Given the highly textured scenes we have witness overly nearly two hours one wonders how the film will conclude. Luckily, because the film avoids a chronological recital, its digital restaging of the video from his 1983 “comeback” hit “I’m Still Standing” makes great symbolic sense as the ending note. John outlived his 70s iconicity and thrived in the 1980s and 1990s in the commercial mainstream. He also became one of the leading voices from the performing arts community to lead HIV/AIDS activist efforts. Though he has become more associated with adult contemporary radio and film music than mainstream radio pop in the 2000s and 2010s he remains a vital artist. He still releases popular and acclaimed albums on major record labels and has mounted multiple successful tours. The film’s closing credits update us on his ongoing sobriety, his relationship with David Furnish and their roles as parents, and current touring activity. Rocketman enraptures us in the glamour of John’s celebrity while allowing us to feel the intimacy and complexity of the artist.
COPYRIGHT © 2019 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.