In Rocketman, during Elton John’s triumphant debut at Los Angeles’ famed Troubadour, as John blasts out “Crocodile Rock,” gravity ceases to exist as John and the crowd start floating toward the ceiling. In another scene, as John performs “Rocketman,” he literally transforms into a human rocket and blasts off into space.
My point here is Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman isn’t super concerned with “facts.” No, gravity still existed at the Troubadour that night and, as far as I can tell, and Elton John has never self-propelled himself into space. This is a technique that works well to allow us to suspend belief about one of the most famous people in the world and just go where this movie wants to take us. Which was a huge problem with Fletcher’s last film, Bohemian Rhapsody.
Ah, yes, Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie that would win Rami Malek an Oscar, but was also savaged for its disregard for anything approaching a factual representation of events. Fletcher was famously brought in to finish the film after Brian Singer “parted ways” with the project, though it was still Singer who would get the directing credit.
So, yes, it’s almost impossible not to compare these two movies about famous rock stars, with voices straight from the heavens, fighting demons and discovering their sexualities. And, again, both play fast and loose with the facts, but in one case it’s all presented as fact (with Mercury not around to dispute any of it) and another presented as fantasy with John very much alive and very much involved.
In the very first scene, we see John (Taron Egerton, who is excellent), dressed as a horned, glittery beast, slamming through the doors to his first day of rehab. He then promptly admits he’s an alcoholic, addicted to cocaine, and goes through a laundry list of his vices — as almost to announce, yes, the real Elton John is involved but he’s not here to sugarcoat his past. Yes, he was a mess, and this is his story.
A lot is being made of Egerton actually performing the songs. I was often reminded, during the Oscars, the clip they used of Malek was of him literally lip-syncing a Queen song. And, you know what, whatever! It worked. Malek has an Oscar. And the truth is Egerton does a pretty mean Elton John. There are songs where he sounds exactly like John, then there are others where he sounds … good, but not really like Elton John.
But beyond the fantastical presentation of the film, it almost reads like a love letter from John to his longtime collaborator, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). It’s an interesting dynamic. The two are presented as polar opposites, but the best of friends. With Taupin’s lyrics and John’s music, the two were unstoppable. But the heart of the story is their friendship and, seemingly, the only person the real-life John would consider a lifelong ally — and the strain that John’s fame (that almost led to John’s death) would put onto their relationship.
And, yes, there are times it feels this movie wants it both ways, alternating between a weird movie and something more standard. But the sheer brute force of Egerton holds it all together. And despite some darker themes, Rocketman is still quite a ride. It plays more as a musical than a standard biopic. (And there’s really no way this won’t be adapted into a Broadway musical at some point.) But it’s impossible not to listen to the music that John and Taupin made and not get swept away by the whole thing. Rocketman is a crowd pleaser.
‘Rocketman’ opens in theaters nationwide on May 30th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.