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Film Review: “Rocketman” Powers Through Its Faults to a Rousing Finish

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 30th, 2019

Film poster: “Rocketman”

Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

I went into Rocketman, the new biopic about Elton John, knowing little to nothing about the life of the man but loving much of his music. That said, it doesn’t take a diehard fan to recognize that the script and mise-en-scène most likely take liberties with facts and chronology, the better to craft a narrative of cause, effect and eventual triumph. In and of itself, this is not necessarily a dramatic evil, given the reinvention of self that lies at the core of many celebrities’ journey to success. Whether one is Farrokh Bulsara (aka Freddie Mercury) or Reginald Dwight (aka Elton John), the public persona often overshadows the private person. Or, as one incidental character says here in director Dexter Fletcher’s rousing tribute to his subject, “Kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.” And, since Elton John, himself, is an executive producer on the movie, we can bet that he has had a hand in making sure we, the audience, know exactly what he wants us to know. So be it. It is still a fun ride.

Indeed, Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) – working from a script by Lee Hall (Victoria & Abdul) – eschews the strictly historical approach typical of cinematic biographies and instead turns the story into an impressionistic musical, using the many songs penned by John and his longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin, to drive and enhance the plot. This fanciful approach, in line with the flashy costumes and concert style of John when he first started, mostly works, carrying us from the opening scenes of the singer in rehab back to childhood, then forward again through adolescence and twentysomething years, all the way through to the beginning rehab again, and beyond. Buoyed by a fully committed and engaging central performance from lead actor Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service), there’s no stopping this show, leaping as it does from one entertaining scene to another.

Taron Egerton in ROCKETMAN ©Paramount Pictures

Still, at two hours, the film feels long, perhaps because we spend much of the late second act and early third act wallowing in John’s addiction to alcohol and cocaine, with one false climax after another – will this be the moment he gets clean? no? how about now? no? – each one staged with similar operatic grandeur. We get it. Now cut to the aftermath, and the hard work of kicking the habit. I was 100% sure that the sequence that takes us from an attempted suicide pool-plunge following a pill-binge, where John meets his self as a boy and is then pulled out of the water, into the hospital, and onto a concert stage dressed in a Dodgers uniform, all the while singing “Rocketman” (aka, the title song), was going to lead us into sobriety. Not so. Cue more nose candy.

Whatever my issues with interminable suffering, I nevertheless enjoyed the overall spectacle. Beyond Egerton, the supporting cast is equally brilliant, with Jamie Bell (Donnybrook) as Taupin, Richard Madden (David Budd on Netflix’s Bodyguard) as John’s lover/manager John Reid (and unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, this film does not shy away from man-on-man action), Bryce Dallas Howard (Gold) and many more. And though I struggled with the math as the credits came up, telling us that Sir Elton is now 28 years sober (after we had just watched his ostensible recovery video for “I’m Still Standing,” released in 1983), I forgive Rocketman many of its screenplay sins because of Egerton, the direction and those damn catchy tunes.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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