From the director of Bohemian Rhapsody comes the story of Elton John. By making Rocketman an actual musical, it avoids some of the Dewey Cox biopic formula.
The framing device is Elton John (Taron Egerton) telling his life story in AA, so you could say, “Elton John needs to think about his entire life before he gets sober.” The framing device is the only traditional aspect of Rocketman though.
Young Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) starts singing “The Bitch Is Back” to his older self and conducting an orchestra from his bedroom. “I Want Love” becomes a relay as everyone in the Dwight family passes the next verse of to the next.
The choreography is phenomenal, especially in “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting.” They make a bigger deal out of it when Keanu Reeves or Matt Damon learn to fight for an action movie but Egerton is just as impressive. I hope Illesley and Kit Connor as teenager Reggie get as much attention as Egerton too.
Occasional lyric changes adapt the songs the biography. Pronoun changes in “I Want Love” make each verse about the singer, and “Rocketman” changes “wife” to “life.” If you know the lyrics, that changes the whole song.
If anything, I wish Rocketman leaned into the musical even more. There’s three big numbers in act one, but then they’re more sporadic and sometimes only a snippet of a song. There are definitely spells where you’re longing for another song.
When the songs come, there are many different ways they can function in the story. None of them are just breaks in the drama.
“Tiny Dancer” becomes a ballad. “Honky Cat” becomes a duet in which the background dancers perform sketches that act out John’s rise to fame. There’s even a surprise cover of another artist’s song.
Elton John’s catalog is way too enormous to include even all the hits in a movie. Everyone is going to have a favorite that’s left out. Mine is “Love Lies Bleeding,” but I understand they don’t have time for a 10 minute musical number, even if they cut the instrumental intro.
“Candle in the Wind” is only a hint of an instrumental medley. “Rocketman” starts underwater and only gets more surreal as it progresses.
Rocketman shows a bit of the songwriting process between John and Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). It’s magic that Taupin could just hand him the lyrics and hear it put to melody. It probably takes a little longer than is shown in the film, but it works as a microcosm of their collaboration.
I’m glad Rocketman included so many shoutouts to Tower Records. I know from the documentary All Things Must Pass that John loved to shop at Tower. Unfortunately they did not go so far as to recreate the inside of a Tower to show John on a shopping spree.
In those talking parts, Rocketman is a bit more focused than most other musician biopics. In most biopics, the addictions are symptoms of the rock n’ roll lifestyle. Rocketman shows how it’s all connected.
As Reggie, his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) didn’t show affection. He struggled with being openly gay, found a partner in John Reid (Richard Madden) who put business before love, and even struggled to love himself.
His art and success were actually the symptoms of his self-destructive behavior, which is a much more interesting, and relatable, story to tell than “talented artist succumbed to the temptations.”
Many artists die before they’re able to conquer their demons and claim their art on their own terms. Since we know Elton John is still making music and touring (although currently on his farewell tour), at least we know that Rocketman is one of the success stories.
By the way they should totally do Rocketman on Broadway. An Elton John jukebox musical, now you’ve already got the book. Add a few more hits and deep cuts and you can charge Hamilton money.
Rocketman opens Friday, May 31.