Rocketman is a Bodacious Romp, But Elton John Deserves More
Rocketman opened at the Cannes Film Festival this week: it’s a glorious song-and-dance extravaganza interspersed with fantasy and heartbreak, but it’s not enough. Directed by Dexter Fletcher (Bohemian Rhapsody), the movie features 22 of Sir Elton John’s most memorable songs in scenes about his sad childhood, his myriad addictions, and the pain and shame surrounding his homosexuality. It’s hard to turn your eyes and ears away from the kaleidoscopic cornucopia of sights and sounds such as the opening sequence in which Mr. John enters rehab dressed in an orange-sequined devil costume or performs a pub rendition of “Crocodile Rock” as a schoolboy. Yet the rollercoaster transitions between the light-hearted (and occasionally over-choreographed) musical numbers and the singer’s dramatic personal disappointments make rock stardom look as depressing and vacuous as it is tuneful and life-altering. Mr. John served as an executive producer on this film about his life, but the flick short-sells the global impact he has made as both a performer and philanthropist.
The plot unfolds in 1952 and follows a five-year-old Reginald Dwight from his family home in Middlesex, England to London for a name change at 20 (Elton Hercules John) to his American debut at L.A.’s Troubadour in 1970 and into the sex-and-drug-fueled decade of international radio superstardom which followed. Rocketman is a careful study of Sir Elton’s early years, his parents’ rejection of his talent, his teenage piano genius at the Royal Academy of Music, and the moment he and lyricist Bernie Taupin charted with their first hit, “Your Song.” The film then moves into fast-forward mode through the 1980s, ending the final scenes with a visual mashup (including real footage from the 1983 music video, “I’m Still Standing” filmed, ironically, on the beach at Cannes ; the infamous 1975 “Rocket Man” performance at Dodgers’ Stadium in Los Angeles, as seen in the trailer, appears earlier). 75 minutes of swirling cacophony in, the film barrels toward its suicidal climax before promising a middle-aged Mr John a chance –– via sobriety and coming out of the closet–– to find the peace and happiness about which he always dreamt. However, we see only cursory glimpses of this sunny future in the film’s closing credits, which reveal a photo of the singer, his husband David Furnish, and their two sons, and another image highlighting Sir Elton’s decades-long work to fight AIDS.
Actor Taron Egerton is an energetic and vulnerable Elton John, particularly when portraying him onstage and in the sex scenes with manipulative music manager and lover, John Reid (played by Richard Madden). Gemma Jones (Bridget Jones’s Diary) is a wonder as the gentle grandmother who attempts to be Elton’s ally and Jamie Bell (star of 2000’s Billy Elliott) is superb as Taupin. The relationship between the young Elton and Bernie is the highlight of the story’s arc; it is the one glimmer of hope amid a string of tragic losses and a special friendship which deserves a separate film all its own.
Rocketman‘s flaws are its omission of Sir Elton’s life between 1988 and 2019 and its lack of a consistent chronology. Why would John and/or the filmmakers choose to omit the triumphant redemption and fulfillment that followed the decades of turmoil, insecurities, hiding, and alcoholism? (Where, for example, were Live Aid, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, the Lion King, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, his art collection, Atlanta, his wedding and more?) The songs on the soundtrack, which run the gamut from 1974’s “The Bitch Is Back” to 2019’s “I’m Gonna Love Me Again,” do not appear in the same order in which they originally hit the charts. This “shuffled playlist” format may work well for a jukebox musical on Broadway, but film audiences familiar with Sir Elton’s history (and those of us who remember our own childhoods as a timeline of hit songs) may get selective amnesia as a result of this haphazard framing.
Sir Elton told reporters at Cannes this week that the final cut of Rocketman is the story he wanted to tell about himself, “even if it doesn’t make a penny at the box office.” As joyous as the film’s reinvention of his amazing piano playing, singing, and songwriting is at times, the story Rocketman tells about Elton John is not enough––not enough to do the songs justice, not enough to satiate the fans, not enough to revere the people whose lives he’s helped save, and not enough to explain the magnanimity of the man himself. Perhaps he didn’t want a biography which praised him too much, so he gave us the truth wrapped in feathers and rhinestone sunglasses instead. In the screening I attended in Atlanta, the audience clapped and cheered at the end of the movie, but mainly because hearing so many of Elton John’s songs made us feel good. This multi-platinum superstar deserves as much happiness and self-worth as his music has given his fans. Maybe when he realizes this, he will consider telling the rest of his story without putting so much razzle-dazzle in the way.