It’s inevitable that the Elton John movie “Rocketman” will be compared to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Both are based on the true stories of extremely talented rock stars who were male, gay, flamboyant, lonely, and massively popular. In the case of the Freddie Mercury/Queen movie, when original director Bryan Singer was thrown off the project after allegations of sexual harassment came to light, Dexter Fletcher took over the production and steered it to completion. This time, Fletcher was all the way, and proves he’s more than capable of running the show.
The framing device of “Rocketman” is Elton telling the narrative to others in a rehab center he’d entered voluntarily for his addiction to pills, booze, and sex. He makes his entrance in a typically over-the-top stage costume, then sheds pieces of it as he peels back the layers of his life story. That costume, by the way, is a remarkable reproduction by designer Julian Day of one of Elton’s actual stage outfits, as are many others he wears in performance scenes. You’ll see them side-by-side with the real things during the closing credits, so don’t leave early.
There are several notable differences between “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman.” The latter uses its subject’s songs to tell the story, in an almost old-fashioned musical sense. While they’re often out of chronological order, those musical numbers allow the characters to burst into song with big production set-pieces and fantasy sequences along the way.
Another big difference between the two rock star biopics is that, in this one, you hear the real voice of the movie’s star. That would be Taron Edgerton, who not only resembles Elton visually — particularly in the later hair-loss years — but vocally, too. He nails the music so well that you don’t even think about it — he is Elton John.
And then there are the gay aspects, which were underplayed in the Freddie Mercury story. Here, Fletcher does not shy away from them, as we not only see Elton holding hands with his partners, but also getting naked in bed with at least one of them (plus another scene with him in the midst of an ocean of people writhing together on the floor).
But what makes “Rocketman” really work is the compelling story of how Elton John went from an unhappy boyhood with parents who never treated him well (every scene with his parents is heartbreaking) to huge success playing the biggest venues in the world. One of the best scenes takes place in Doug Weston’s Troubadour, a legendary Los Angeles nightclub (still open today) that spawned stars like Joni Mitchell, The Byrds, Carole King, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and The Eagles. It was there that Elton played his first gig in America, which is reproduced in “Rocketman,” though not entirely accurately. According to the Ultimate Classic Rock website:
‘Rocketman’ correctly depicts Elton John’s show on Aug. 25, 1970, at the Troubadour in Los Angeles as the moment when the singer’s career pivoted. But it also makes a few errors. In the film, owner Doug Weston recruits three musicians from the local scene to back him, when John actually traveled to the U.S. with his band, comprised of drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray. The movie also shows John introduced by Weston (Neil Diamond did the real-life honors), at which point John enters, tentatively begins playing “Crocodile Rock,” then eventually seizes the moment and pulls out all stops. But John actually began with “Your Song,” and “Crocodile Rock” wasn’t even written until two years later. Director Dexter Fletcher told ‘Rolling Stone’ that he knew the song was used out of sequence, “but what I care about is capturing the moment cinematically and musically.”
I was a bit annoyed that “Rocketman” gave such short shrift to Olsson and Murray, both earlier members of the Spencer Davis Group, who spent decades — not just that one gig — with Elton, both in the studio and on tour. As for Weston and the Troubadour, someday someone will make a film about their place in rock history, but for now, we’ll have to get by with Tate Donovan in a long wig as the club owner.
Of course, Elton wouldn’t have been as successful if it weren’t for the brilliant lyrics written by Bernie Taupin. I’d bet that for many who see “Rocketman,” the revelation that Elton didn’t pen the words will be a surprise, and even more credit will be given to the reclusive genius Taupin, played well by Jamie Bell.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, including Richard Madden (“Bodyguard”) as Elton’s lover and manager John Reid, Bryce Dallas Howard (“Jurassic World”) and Steven Mackintosh (“Wanderlust”) as Elton’s parents, Gemma Jones (“Sense and Sensibility”) as his supportive grandmother Ivy, and especially Matthew Illesley in his first screen role as the young Elton (when still known by his birth name, Reginald Dwight).
Speaking of his name, the movie implies that Elton (who chose his first name from Elton Dean, the sax player in his early band, Bluesology) took his last name from John Lennon upon seeing a photo of The Beatles in a music office. That’s totally wrong — he took “John” as a tribute to another Bluesology colleague, Long John Baldry. On the other hand, I was glad the movie didn’t entirely skip Elton’s marriage to a woman named Renate Blauel — which everyone knew was a mistake from Day One — even though it didn’t happen within the story’s timeline.
It would be impossible to capture all the odd twists and turns in Elton John’s life in a single two-hour movie. Instead, director Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall (“War Horse,” “Billy Elliot”) have — with Elton’s approval, since he’s an executive producer — stuck to the most important plot points, even the ones that don’t show this rock legend in the best light (e.g. his drug and alcohol abuse phase). The result is a fascinating and very entertaining ride through the first half of the life of a child prodigy, brilliant musician, great showman, and rock megastar.
Since Rami Malek won an Oscar for playing Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you can expect a big push for Taron Edgerton (previously known for the “Kingsmen” movies, “Eddie The Eagle,” a the voice of Johnny in the animated “Sing”) to be given the same acclaim for portraying Elton John in “Rocketman.” He carries the movie on his back, along with all of those outrageous costumes, giving one helluva lead performance.
I give “Rocketman” an 8.5 out of 10.