Spoiler alert, if you can spoil real life events.
I went into Rocketman not knowing exactly what to expect. Most of my experience with Elton John’s music comes from hearing Greatest Hits while riding with my family as a kid or the various movie soundtracks he’s written for or just been featured on. The only time I’ve seen a live performance was the duet with Lady Gaga during the Grammys in 2010 (I don’t care what you say, that was an incredible performance by the way). Clearly calling myself a fan of his is an insult to his true fans. But I went to an early screening at my usual AMC no less intrigued, albeit nervous that it would be a saccharine portrayal of an incredible musician akin to Bohemian Rhapsody. There were plenty of syrupy moments, however this was only one texture of a layered film that managed to reach emotions I wasn’t expecting it to, filmed in a way that made it incredibly memorable amongst modern musicals.
As the film begins, Sir Elton John, dressed in typical over-the-top fashion, throws open the doors and confidently steps into… Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a quick way to show that Rocketman was not simply made to please the crowd. When Reginald Dwight became Elton John, he lived life on the extreme, with not only intense highs but intense lows too, and the film proved it was a life worth fully examining.
The costumes, the flamboyance, the arrogance, all covered up some deep personal anguish. Every film needs its conflict and obstacles, but Rocketman doesn’t just throw his troubles in for plot; it lingers on them, sometimes for uncomfortably long periods of time. As the film progressed, we continued to look back in on Elton in therapy, slowly tearing away layers of his costume that hid his truly damaged interior. It was only once he stripped off this protective shell that he was able to fully come to terms with who he had become and what he needed to let go. Did it really happen this way in real life? I have no idea, but it certainly made for a heart wrenching final reconciliation.
Elton John became as much of an antagonist as he was a protagonist in his own story. His overspending, drug abuse, eating disorder, and other mental health difficulties were on full display in the film. He had help along the way of course. His mother, father, and manager John Reid are all much more traditional villains, ignoring him at best and taking advantage of him at worst. Yet the choices Elton made were his own, and the real Elton has spoken in support of this perspective. To allow these storylines to pervade parts of the story was a brave choice.
Rocketman featured a few other important protagonists for Elton. If you know his legacy well, you know his writing partner Bernie Taupin had an impact that can’t be overstated. However, I did not know how great of a supporter Elton’s grandmother was, especially during his formative years. Giving them, and other supportive men and women like his stepfather, some of the spotlight in Elton’s legacy story was a wonderful tribute.
Not only does Rocketman nail the story, but it was retold in such a brilliant way as well. Taron Egerton’s singing was top-notch, and the songs were changed up just enough to fit the big screen while still staying true to the originals. Although it was too early in the film to be the “climax”, the performance at the Troubadour was a peak of the film in terms of excitement and emotional impact. It gave me goosebumps, it was such an incredible piece of filmmaking. Another effective scene was later on, as Elton John’s life began spinning out of control and the camera literally spun; the audience was just along for the ride of going from venue to venue, wearing eccentric costumes and acting the part, numb from drugs, until he collapsed.
Look, it’s a musical fantasy based on the life and music of Elton John. It’s such a fitting combination that it would be hard to make it terrible. Was it cheesy at times? Yes. But you could feel that the cast and crew, and Elton John himself, took Rocketman more seriously, not just shooting for hero-worship, but to put out an overall great film. The results will undoubtedly please any fan of Elton John, or fans of musical film in general.