Let’s begin with the inevitable comparisons. It’s not director Dexter Fletcher’s fault that his Elton John biopic “Rocketman” has been released less than a year after “Bohemian Rhapsody” – the film about the late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. But since it has, let the comparisons begin.
Let me begin by saying “Rocketman” is a better picture than “Bohemian Rhapsody.” A lot better. Not that it would take much. Recall that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a by-the-numbers rock star biopic that hit all the highlights of Mercury’s life (troubled family life, meteoric rise to stardom, homosexuality, party lifestyle, loneliness) without shedding a single ounce of light into what made Mercury tick. What was the impetus for all those ambiguous lyrics? Was he tormented because of his homosexuality? Or in spite of it? These questions shall forever remain unanswered – until and unless someone makes a proper tribute to the musical legend.
While I can’t say “Rocketman” achieves perfection, it’s miles ahead of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Why? Well, first and foremost, “Rocketman” is an actual musical – not simply a biography of a musical legend, chock full of his greatest hits. In an early scene, young Reggie Dwight (John’s real name) breaks into song – not to simply perform a song, but to use a song to propel the action of the story – and others join him in step to perform a brief musical number. This structure follows the Lee Hall screenplay throughout – rendering “Rocketman” as more akin to “La La Land” than to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Because of this musical architecture, it matters less that John’s songs are not performed in chronological order than it did in the grossly unsequential “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Instead, John’s material is used to advance the story line – regardless of time period. (Having said this, there are two instances when the use of John’s music stands out like a sore thumb. First, when John is “auditioning” in the office of music publisher Dick James, he sings portions of “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” and “Sad Songs” – two of his mid ’80s hits. And when he makes his Los Angeles debut at the Troubadour in 1970, he opens with “Crocodile Rock” – a hit record from 1973.
And while Rami Malek’s dead-on impersonation of Freddie Mercury was one of the few highlights of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Welsh actor Taron Egerton is equally as flawless as John. Ironically, Egerton’s performance is less an imitation than it is an embodiment of all that is Elton John. While we never lose sight of the fact that we are watching an actor portray Elton John, we are also keenly aware that all John’s energy and inner turmoil comes through in Egerton’s achievement. In this sense, Egerton’s execution is reminiscent of David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King in 2014’s “Selma.” We knew we weren’t actually watching King – but damn if he didn’t capture King’s essence.
Egerton doesn’t have the singing chops of John, but I’m glad Fletcher required that he perform all John’s songs himself – rather than dubbing John’s voice the way Mercury’s voice was dubbed in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Again, the impersonation doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to be “real.” Egerton is stronger as an actor than as a singer. And that’s perfectly fine, given this material.
British actor Jamie Bell (“Billy Elliot”) is also strong as John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin. And I love how the two wrote their musical masterpieces. Taupin would write the lyrics as nothing more than poetry, give the words to John, and he would sit at the piano putting the words to music. I imagine that’s how Burt Bacharach and Hal David worked, too. And wouldn’t that make for another interesting musical biopic – lest any Hollywood producers are reading these words?
Scottish actor Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones”) plays John’s lover, John Reid. Steven Mackintosh is fine as John’s distant and unlovable father Stanley. But American actress Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron HOward) is miscast as John’s moody and selfish mother Sheila. It’s not that Howard is a bad actress; it’s just that she plays her role more for camp than with the weight of the other actors.
I particularly liked the structure of “Rocketman.” Hall’s screenplay opens with John entering an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and, at the group leader’s behest, begins telling the group about his childhood. Throughout the action of the film, we continue to return to the AA group, as John offers commentary on his feelings and emotions relating to the scene we just watched. In this sense, “Rocketman” reminds me of the brilliant “All That Jazz,” the 1979 biopic of Broadway legend Bob Fosse, played by Roy Scheider – in which Fosse/Scheider commented on the action as we watched. It’s not so much a narration as it is a running commentary, allowing us to get inside the head of the film’s subject in a way that we could not, had the story been told in a strictly linear fashion.
Unfortunately, the AA setting does allow the screenplay to concentrate too much on John’s dalliance into alcohol, cocaine and pills. Most of us are aware than John struggled with substance abuse for much of his career. However, a few strong scenes of self-destruction go a long way. And while I certainly think a good 15-20 minutes could have been cut from the film’s running time, I can’t help but focus on the aspects of John’s life that “Rocketman” omits.
Where is his friendship with AIDS patient Ryan White? Where is the creation of the Elton John AIDS Foundation? Where is his contribution to Dionne Warwick’s charity recording “That’s What Friends Are For?” It seems as though some of the “good” highlights of John’s life are eliminated at the expense of focusing on the “bad” lowlights. Ironically, “Rocketman” was John’s idea. He’s been pushing this project in Hollywood for some time – wanting to tell his story to a wide audience. I understand that he wants to lay bare the struggles of his life, but director Fletcher needed to raise his hand and suggest that John’s triumphs be a significant part of the finished product.
“Rocketman” is a very good film, albeit not a great one. It will appeal to both John’s fans and to those who know very little about this musical giant. I suppose its star will shine brighter than perhaps it should, given the imminent comparison to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But that’s not a bad thing. “Rocketman” is quite an achievement, and I’m glad I saw it.