Review: Rocketman

Review: Rocketman

by Alan Grant
article from Friday 7, June, 2019

THE ELTON JOHN biographical musical, Rocketman, was released towards the end of May, meaning that most audiences would see it either just before the start of or during June which also happens to be LGBT Pride Month. Obviously, this is no coincidence and, in fact, represents one of the many good choices that the filmmakers have made in putting together this picture. Not only does the story of the life so far of Elton John, one of the world’s most prominent gay men, feel suitable for release at this time of year but it also provides an interesting addition to two relevant and on-going debates in popular culture; can a biographic flick made with the subject’s blessing be trusted and should straight actors play gay roles?

Aside from these burning questions, to which we shall return imminently, there is very little to fault Rocketman on as a film. Our story begins with young Reggie Dwight (Kit Connor/Mathew Illesley) showing an innate aptitude for both playing the piano and singing. Following a stint at the Royal Academy of Music we join grown-up Dwight (Taron Egerton), now calling himself ‘Elton John’, as he rises from pub singer to being the single biggest music sensation on the planet – responsible for a staggering amount of record sales.

All, however, is not well as a web of drugs, unscrupulous managers, fake friends, fraught relationships, drugs, food, sex, and booze begins to close in on him. On the way, we’re treated to a range of toe-tapping and fist-pumping rock ‘n’ roll classics custom recorded for the movie. For those who enjoy musicals based on the music of specific artists, it’s far more Mamma Mia than it is Bohemian Rhapsody – and is all the better for it.

Lots of aspects of Rocketman work effectively. Dexter Fletcher’s directing is spot on and the production values are both polished and sumptuous enough to handle the film’s wackier moments. Meanwhile, Matthew Margeson’s musical direction is excellent and weaves seamlessly the classic Elton John songs in with his own original score to give the film a real feeling of weight, elegance, and luxury – ramping up the craziness throughout to match the spiralling out of control life of its main character.

The stand-out component of this solid musical is, however, its star. Taron Egerton, the 29-year-old Welshman who made his name in the quite excellent Kingsman: The Secret Service and its less enjoyable sequel, absolutely shines as Elton John in an Oscar-worthy performance. Egerton’s gift for mannerism and tone, plus his remarkable singing voice which will force you to check out the soundtrack on Spotify afterwards, make him a surprise success in a very challenging leading role. 

In particular, Egerton’s mix of masculinity and vulnerability shine through, much in the same way as Elton John’s own similar characteristics, drawing the audience in and helping us both root for him and throw a fair bit of side-eye at his more extravagant, ostentatious, and problematic choices.

It is no secret that Rocketman has been made with the blessing of Elton John, his lyricist Bernie Taupin (portrayed sympathetically and accurately by the wonderful Jamie Bell), and Elton’s husband David; so prospective audiences were understandably concerned that it may have ended up on the masturbatory side. However, these concerns, while justified at the time, turn out to be unnecessary – Rocketman does not shy away from the grittier aspects of this remarkable man’s career.

Elton John’s ostentatiousness, legendary temper, and other personal failings are on full display but never in a callous, voyeuristic, or vindictive way and doing so keeps things honest and critical. Part of this success is down to the genre – musical movies allow for a slightly augmented sense of reality, including some dream sequences that are Rocketman’s true highlights – while the fact that we never leave the singer’s perspective keeps things narratively tight.

The main success of Rocketman, in terms of being an honest but still affectionate biopic, comes from its choice of timeframe. It is not a spoiler to say that the film opens with Elton John checking himself into a rehabilitation centre and works backwards and then forwards to that same point in history. The whole story is told from this POV and the spectre of the subject’s poor life choices catching up with him, and how he will deal with them when they do, is never far away. Had the writer, director, and subject been less brazen, and perhaps told the story from an awards dinner or some other trite choice then the picture may have come across as smug or self-satisfied but it takes a risk and that risk pays off big time.

Prior to its release, one of the issues that plagued Rocketman was the casting of Taron Egerton in the lead role; not because of his talent as an actor (no one who is serious about cinema could doubt that) but rather about his being a straight actor playing one of modern history’s most famous and flamboyant gay men. There are some in the gay community who feel, with no small amount of justification, that given there still remains, even in liberal Hollywood circles, a significant amount of typecasting and prejudice that results in gay actors only being chosen for gay roles, that the job should have gone to a gay actor. On this issue, I find myself conflicted. I recognise that there are still issues for gay men in the creative industries, although thankfully less so now than ever before, and that stigma and prohibitive expectations still exist.

However, I also sat through Rocketman and witnessed an honest, frank, legitimate, and realistic portrayal of a gay legend given by a man who has a strong record of supporting homosexual men and which included a sex scene between two men which was passionate, genuine, and never once relied on the ‘ick’ factor or attempted to suggest it was there to titillate a straight audience.

Essentially, both Egerton, and Richard Madden who plays Elton John’s lover and manager John Reid, succeed in their roles as gay men with stories to tell so well that the concerns one may have prior to going into the theatre are snuffed out like… well, you know.

The success Egerton in particular has in navigating the ‘should straight actors play gay?’ ethical minefield does not for a moment negate that conversation or excuse any future problematic such instances that may occur, but it does provide an example of how it can be done sensitively and with due consideration both to the subject and to the moral issues surrounding it. Essentially, it is not a blank cheque for Jason Statham to mince about as Paul Lynde, but it does show that, when done right, it is possible for the answer to the ‘should straight actors play gay men?’ question be ‘yes, as long as some conditions are met’. It really works!

… and, because the comparison is obvious, it’s miles better than Bohemian Rhapsody because Rocketman is fun and engaging while Bohemian Rhapsody was a drab, dull, default-setting Oscar-bait dirge and not very good at all…

Overall, there’s very little not to recommend about this slick, effective, and fun musical treat. Perhaps the final third gets a bit mawkish and is slightly drawn out but most audiences will probably be too invested in the story by that point to know or care. It is rated 15 and, given the sex, drugs, swearing, and violence in it, is certainly pushing the upper limit of that classification, so maybe don’t go see it with the kids or elderly family members – unless they’re super cool!! But definitely go see Rocketman, even if you’re not a massive fan of the man himself, because this rocket is worth getting on.

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