Biopics about musicians can offer fascinating stories, as they allow for us to see the events of their lives that inspired their songs. The experiences that they have can offer great stories and show us who they are as artists, and one musician whose life lends itself to a layered story is that of the vibrant and iconic singer, Elton John.
Director Dexter Fletcher brings Elton’s rise-to-fame story to the screen with “Rocketman,” a well-acted, visually dazzling, and energetically choreographed movie that works as both a musical and an in-depth portrait of the more-personal aspects of the famous singer.
Ever since he was young, Reginald “Reggie” Dwight (Taron Egerton) exhibited a natural talent at playing piano. As he gets older, his career begins to soar, but his life is soon hindered by personal issues that threaten everything for which he has worked.
Egerton, who collaborated with Fletcher for the 2016 sports comedy-drama, “Eddie the Eagle,” exhibits is endless charisma, rocking to the beats as his character performs for enthusiastic crowds, all in a performance that treats audiences to an amplitude of Elton’s love for music. Egerton brings a superb amount of dedication to the role, doing a lot of his own singing and immersing himself in the passion that Elton brings to his musicianship.
While Egerton shows his dramatic range throughout the film, such as dealing with his addictions, his scenes in a therapy session (which frames the story) are just as hard-hitting. In these sequences, Egerton displays Elton’s pain for sharing the stories about his childhood and stardom, but also the relief later on in having confided his problems in people who are going through tough times, like himself.
Jamie Bell offers a performance that’s just as strong as Egerton’s, portraying Elton’s songwriter and friend, Bernie Taupin. He’s someone who’s always there in Elton’s corner, knowing what’s best for their career, but showing the dejection when being pushed aside as Elton continues to fall into trouble. Bell is understated in his portrayal of the character, but brings so much to the role as he tries to steer Elton in the right direction so their friendship can stay alive and allow them to make music.
Some of the standout supporting performances include Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mother, Sheila Eileen, a character who seems to support her son at first, but soon begins to drift from him; and Richard Madden as Elton’s manager and lover, John Reid, who gives Elton the opportunity to live his desired lifestyle, but then loses sight of Elton’s best interests, in order to meet his own needs. The relationships that Sheila and John have with Elton show the many strains that the latter suffered in his personal life, and the hostility that builds between Elton and these two people, who should be doing what they can to support his endeavors, adds considerable weight to the drama as Elton deals with mounting stress.
Although the story could have been a little longer because of how majestic Elton’s career has been, the screenplay by Lee Hall still provides a sufficient amount of insight into Elton’s life. One of the memorable aspects of the story is the use of a therapy session as a framing device. Every time the film cuts back to the session, a little bit more of Elton’s demon costume (which he was going to wear when performing at Madison Square Garden before leaving at the last minute to begin therapy) is removed, showing him opening up to the rest of the patients and casting his personal demons aside in order to begin a better life.
The conversations between the characters don’t fall into clichéd dialogue that you might find in other musical biopics, but instead sound like real, emotional dialogues with well-rounded characters. These scenes are given enough time to explore Elton’s personal life and don’t allow the movie to become just about recreating Elton’s stage performances. The interactions between Elton, his friends, his family, and his colleagues are scattered throughout the film, investing us in the troubles that Elton encounters and how he strives to overcome them in the middle of a burgeoning career.
George Richmond’s camerawork is remarkable in how it captures the kinetic presence that Elton brought to his performances. This is most notable in a scene early in the film where a younger Elton (Matthew Illesley) begins performing “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” in a bar, before walking outside and traversing through a fairground that’s filled with dancers, and then transitioning to a teenage Elton (Kit Connor) to continue the song. This sequence is broken up into a couple of long takes that highlight the complexity of the camerawork and choreography. Throughout this scene, the nonstop energy of Elton and the dancers compliment the scope of the background as nighttime at the fair comes alive and creates one of the best scenes that I’ve seen in film this year, so far.
Fletcher adds a ton of visual flair to the film, bringing to life the vision that Elton had for his countless performances. Before working on this film, Fletcher was brought on to finish directing the 2018 Queen biopic, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” after its original director, Bryan Singer, was fired from the production. While you couldn’t tell which scenes were directed by which filmmaker, it’s clear from Fletcher’s work on “Rocketman” that he could have made a wonderful Queen biopic if he had been attached to “Bohemian Rhapsody” from the beginning, which speaks to how amazing of a job he does with “Rocketman.”
The approach to make this film into a musical helps to reinvigorate biopics about famous musicians. By having several of the songs performed as song-and-dance numbers, rather than just having Elton sing them on stage or in a recording booth, it goes hand-in-hand with the theatricality of Elton’s stage presence. With this, the film avoids many musician-biopic conventions and celebrates the thrilling creativity of Elton, a rocketman who reached for the stars and became a music legend.