This is not the 1997 film comedy starring Harland Williams (RocketMan) and the chimp in space. That was a laugh out-loud film, this one is not. If you have been living under a rock the past fifty years, Rocketman is the story of Elton John, perhaps the world’s most successful singer/songwriter.
Rocketman is a condensed story of Elton John’s life, a tale of success, excess and sadness. Elton John was creatively involved in the making of this film (serving as Executive Producer) so he, and producer-husband David Furnish, make sure it contains an extra helping of warts. No addiction, fractured family relationship, romantic debacle, outrageousness, or hair loss, is left off the screen.
The film is nearly two hours of sadness, which overtops his great career success and the generosity he provided to others. The film is structured around his terrible family upbringing (with the exception of his maternal grandmother) and struggles to find his inner identity and peace. Success only seemed to magnify his unhappiness and opportunity for harmful excess. The film is strong in showing his inner turmoil and inability to develop happy and loving relationships.
This is not a documentary, the film takes certain dramatic license with the events and the timeline of what we know. Some songs are out of order, written earlier or later, but the meaning of the songs are used to emphasize certain emotional events. Some events are time shifted, such as his marriage to sound engineer Renate Blauel, moved up a few years in the film, as well as his rehab stay.
At first, his character breaking into song and dance during the performance or simply the suggestion of one of his songs, was a bit off-putting. Suddenly, it seemed we were in West Side Story. Because of this non-linear and fantasy approach, the viewer is best to suspend reality and just let the musical story wash over them.
The performances, particularly Taron Egerton as adult Elton, and Bryce Dallas Howard as his mother, a cold and unloving mother, are scarily good. With her every word you feel the life being sucked out of Elton, even as an adult. Steven Mackintosch as Elton’s neglectful and remote father, helped you understand why Elton self-medicated and formed disastrous relationships.
The film focuses on the period between when Elton was trying to establish a musical career (late 1960s) into his melt-down in the mid 1980s. Dexter Fletcher directed the film and keeps the story moving and camera moving as well. A former actor, Fletcher has directed several music films, and completed Bohemian Rhapsody when director Bryan Singer was fired before completion. Fletcher does a credible job with the musical sequences and time shifting Elton within some sequences to show the passage of time.
Scripted by Lee Hall, a playwright and film writer, he captures the authenticity of the period and creates a musical tapestry of Elton’s life. Hall has written historical and period films as well as musicals, and being English probably helped. Compressing and moving elements of someone’s life is tricky, the payoff has to be better than the criticism from those who recognize the trickery. The casual fan won’t know the difference but someone who grew up in the era, me, noticed quite often.
Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody had a lot in common, covering the same time period and main characters who indulged in substance abuse and self-destructive lives. It is difficult making widely known, bigger than life characters, sympathetic and believable at their core. If you lived in the period, you not only know the music, you know the lives, and we’re a more difficult audience than the younger generation who actually buy most of the movie tickets.
Two of Queen and Elton’s best known songs were: “Keep Yourself Alive” and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Ironic, given the death of Freddie Mercury and the near death of Elton John. In the end, maybe “Somebody to Love” was at the core of both men.