This one took some serious rumination, because as much I would love to say I loved Rocketman, I can only say I liked it. I’m still thinking about it though, so it’s possible my verdict will change over time, much like my initial reaction toward Bohemian Rhapsody which impressed me more upon second viewing. It’s not fair to directly compare Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody however, because even though they share a director (sort of, in part) and touch on similar topics relating to music, addiction, sexuality, excess, friendship, family and betrayal – the movies themselves are quite different, narratively and stylistically.
While “BoRhap” is a fairly straightforward biopic about the late, legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, Rocketman is a flashy musical fantasy (think Moulin Rouge) about the still very much alive and rockin’ – and nearly 30 years sober – Elton John. Sometimes it works – in spectacular fashion. Other times, not so much. One thing is for sure though: Taron Egerton is pretty darn amazing as Elton John. Egerton (Kingsman, Robin Hood, Eddie the Eagle) does all his own singing and does a fantastic job bringing John’s iconic songs to life while exposing the pop star’s raw vulnerabilities.
Rocketman follows John’s transformation from shy piano prodigy Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illisley) through his breakout years as the eccentric, costume-lovin’, crocodile rockin’ Elton John. The film opens with a flashy scene of John, in full-plumed orange bird regalia, bursting into… rehab. The 12-step setting provides the framing device for Elton to recount through song his lonely childhood with self-absorbed parents, his musical training, and his fortuitous pairing with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliott). Their collaboration yielded John’s biggest hits including: Your Song, Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock, Honky Cat, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, The Bitch is Back, Goodbye Yellowbrick Road and others featured prominently in the movie, capped off, appropriately enough, with a joyful recreation of the video for John’s 1983 hit song I’m Still Standing. In many ways, Rocketman seems destined for the Broadway stage.
Rocketman takes its darkest turns when delving into John’s self-destructive behavior, drug use and suicide attempts, romantic entanglement with longtime manager – and chief villain – John Reid (Richard Madden), and desperation for the kind of affection he craved but never got as a child. This is serious stuff that can be an awkward fit for a song-driven narrative and could account for the film’s innate unevenness.
I’ve been looking forward to Rocketman ever since I saw the first trailers and a clip of Egerton performing “Tiny Dancer” alongside Elton John at a post-Oscars party, soon after Rami Malek picked up the Best Actor award for Bohemian Rhapsody. Egerton’s performance is just as strong (if not more so) as Malek’s, though it remains to be seen whether Rocketman will still reverberate through the Academy’s consciousness six months from now. Egerton will likely remain on my short list for Best Actor; but I don’t anticipate Rocketman making the cut for Best Picture. In this particular case, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. At least, not on first viewing. I may have to see it again.