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Elton John biopic 'Rocketman' is an extravagant jukebox musical with heart -- and sex

Elton is leaving tonight on a plane.

Elton is leaving tonight on a plane. Photo provided by Paramount Pictures

Rocketman is biography as surreal, impressionistic musical. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Beautifully.

As an Elton John fan of long standing, I was cautiously optimistic when the artist first announced the project in 2011. That was seven years before Bohemian Rhapsody went on to rack up almost a billion dollars worldwide to become the highest-grossing music biopic of all time, a year before Rami Malek won the Oscar for his toothy turn as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.

John and his production team considered Ewan McGregor, Guy Pearce, and Justin Timberlake, but ultimately decided on Tom Hardy in 2013. I was doubtful the buff, swaggering actor could pull it off but was eager to see him try. Though Malek lip-synced his way through Bohemian Rhapsody, the idea was for Hardy to do his own singing, except everyone—Hardy included—agreed that he wasn’t quite up to the task. He dropped out and Taron Egerton, the fresh-faced kid from Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman series, signed on. (John appeared with him in 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle.)

This seemed like a step back, especially after Egerton’s 2018 Robin Hood failed spectacularly with audiences and critics, mustering a measly 15 percent at Rotten Tomatoes. But Dexter Fletcher previously directed the 29-year-old Welshman in his third feature, 2015’s Eddie the Eagle, so they had already established a working relationship. In retrospect, it appears preordained, even if the opposite is true. A Hardy Rocketman surely would’ve been a more intense affair, but Egerton brings a welcome buoyancy to the role (though Hardy as butch-era Freddie Mercury really would’ve been something).

Before he steps into it, Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor acquit themselves nicely as the young Reginald Dwight, a piano prodigy with a disinterested father (Stephen Mackintosh), a distracted mother (a virtually unrecognizable Bryce Dallas Howard), and a supportive nan (the delightful Gemma Jones). Once Reg reaches adulthood, Egerton takes over.

In real life, Elton took his stage name from Elton Dean and Long John Baldry. In the film, a certain Beatle inspires the surname, a move that plays more as a nod to the friendship that produced Lennon’s 1974 hit “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” than to the historical record, but then Rocketman is billed as a “real fantasy.” That gives Fletcher, who completed Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer’s ignominious departure, license to slice and dice the truth in a way that’s less egregious than in a literal-minded venture like his previous one. 

Fletcher got his start as an actor, and not just any actor: Blessed with full lips and thick, wavy hair, he played the title role in groundbreaking queer filmmaker Derek Jarman’s 1986 Caravaggio. (Jarman was also the director who introduced Fletcher’s co-star, Tilda Swinton, to the world.) Among Fletcher’s 107 acting credits, his most Rocketman-relevant include 1976’s kiddie musical Bugsy Malone, Mike Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan docudrama Topsy-Turvy, and the Vaughn-produced Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

If Rocketman is hardly an arthouse proposition like Todd Haynes’ multifaceted Dylan portrait, I’m Not There, it’s better than most music biopics, and not so much for what it has to say—it’s a fully authorized motion picture, after all—but for the visual flair Fletcher brings to it. Elton doesn’t just sing; he floats, flies, blasts off into space, even communes with different versions of himself. It’s tempting to compare it to Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, though it never gets that dark, not even during the depths of Elton’s drug-alcohol-sex-food addiction, but characters break into song at key moments just as they break into dance at key moments in Fosse’s autobiographical fantasia.

Other possible reference points include Pasolini (the nightmarish disco sequence), Ken Russell (the “Pinball Wizard” sequence…among others not directly connected to Tommy), Baz Luhrmann (the way songs fit the mood or theme rather than the year), and possibly even Liverpool laureate Terence Davies, since Reg’s family congregates at the local pub like so many of Davies’ working-class families over the years—families that often included gay sons.

If Egerton, who sang Elton’s “I’m Still Standing” in the animated feature Sing, isn’t a great vocalist, he’s unforced and engaging. That may sound like faint praise, but he does justice to Elton’s ’70s catalog, and that’s no mean feat. I had to suppress the urge to sing along to every lyric, a temptation filmgoers of a certain age may find impossible to resist.

If the comparisons between Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman already feel like overkill, the filmmakers have only encouraged them by working manager John Reid into both scenarios--and by casting compact, dark-haired Game of Thrones actors for the roles; Aiden Gillen (Littlefinger) for the former and Richard Madden (Robb Stark) for the latter. After Reid, a seductive, Machiavellian figure in Madden’s precise portrayal, the most significant person in John’s on-screen life is songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). While Elton is shopping around for a record deal, music publisher Dick James (a hilarious Stephen Graham) by way of A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) brings the two together.

In Lee Hall’s script, we’re meant to believe that John and Taupin never had a single argument, which is patently untrue (Elton to the Guardian: “We’ve had arguments”), but the actors sell the partnership wonderfully. Bell, the more seasoned performer, nicely underplays his every scene, thus confirming that the more conventionally attractive Taupin wasn’t meant for the stage, though his affection for Elton is never in doubt. Nor is his concern when his partner goes off the rails. It’s a sweet relationship that’s totally idealized, but their composer-lyricist chemistry speaks for itself through the quality of the 24 John-Taupin songs featured in the film, from “The Bitch Is Back” (sung by Elton as a 10-year-old) to “I’m Still Standing” (sung by Elton as a thirtysomething). Hall wrote Billy Elliot, the 2000 movie that made then-14-year-old Bell a star, and appears to know how to write to the actor’s strengths, and would go on to work with Elton on the musical version of that film.

Rocketman is less skittish than most major-studio features about gay sex. While the PG-13 rated Bohemian Rhapsody took a judgmental view of homosexuality, particularly in the Cruising-style sequence with Freddie and a bit of rough trade at a shadowy gas station, Rocketman earns its R rating with a sunlit sex scene set to “Take Me to the Pilot” in addition to a few other tasteful same-sex sequences (all of which were excised when the film opened in Russia). As Elton told the Guardian in May, “Some studios wanted to tone down the sex and drugs so the film would get a PG-13 rating. But I just haven’t led a PG-13 rated life.” Granted, if the sex was straight, the MPAA would’ve been more lenient, but the ratings board’s double standards regarding gay vs. straight sex and male vs. female nudity are well known.

If the R rating allows for a more honest look at Elton’s life than that of the neutered Freddie Mercury, it’s also just one of the reasons why Rocketman won’t sell as many tickets or win as many awards as Bohemian Rhapsody. Once Elton gets clean, the film, which uses a group therapy session as a framing device, is over. Unlike biopics about Buddy Holly, Selena, and other artists who didn’t even make it to 25, there’s no tragic death to wring the audience’s tears. In strictly dramatic terms, Elton made the mistake of neglecting to die before he got old (though his suicide attempts indicate that he made a valiant effort). The now 72-year-old, still-touring artist would, instead, keep going; doing all the things Freddie wouldn’t get a chance to do: marrying his male partner, raising children, and receiving a knighthood for his charitable efforts.

If there’s no real tragedy here, and the film doesn’t exactly rewrite the rules of the music biopic, it’s exhilarating in a way so many others have tried and failed to be. At the very least it gives us the moment when Elton, clad in a bathrobe, sits down at the piano in his childhood home to sing a song while he and Taupin are bunking with his mother and stepfather. There are no glitter sunglasses, no sequined jumpsuits, no backup dancers clad in colorful outfits. “I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words,” Elton sings clearly and plainly, “How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.” Taupin steps into the room, and from the way his face lights up, it’s clear that he knows exactly who Elton, in that moment, is singing about. He proceeds to give his friend the kind of look any of us would be lucky to receive even once in our lives. If that was the only thing Rocketman gave us, it would be enough.