Taron Egerton: Elton John
Jamie Bell: Bernie Taupin
Richard Madden: John Reid
Bryce Dallas Howard: Sheila
Screenplay by: Lee Hall
Directed by: Dexter Fletcher
Rated R for language throughout, some drug use, and sexual content
A flamboyant, theatrical performer such as Elton John deserves a biopic that exudes style, energy, and pinache. Hell, it's required if one is to appreciate the life Elton John lived while he was one of the biggest selling recording artists on the planet. It is the epitome of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll and Rocketman. While the core framework is fairly generic of rock star story, the specific elements within it elevate to something less paint-by-the-numbers. And the whole thing is anchored by two revelatory performances by Taron Egerton and Jamie Bell.
Rocketman starts like many of these things: the subject is seen at a critical breaking point in their life and they reflect back on how they got to this point. Here, Elton John is first seen walking down a corridor adorned in on his infamous show costumes. He wears wings and horns and appears in a silhouette that makes him look demonic. He storms down the hall and straight into a circle of addicts attending a group therapy session at a rehab session. Now, this isn't exactly how Elton John checked in to rehab in real life. It's a stylized representation of the framing device for the story of his life. The rehab circle becomes a kind of Greek chorus we keep coming back to periodically. In that way, the whole movie feels like therapy.
In this first scene, Elton reflects back on his childhood under a brash, caustic mother and emotionally distant father. The only source of affection in those days seems to come from a doting grandmother. We see his transition from child prodigy to budding rock musician in England. One standout sequence starts with young Elton (still going by his given name of Reginald Dwight) performing at a local pub as a boy. Against a manic staging of "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting," we see him transition from the boy to the man who would be come Elton John. He meets his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin and, after catching on in England, they are off to L.A. for a series of shows at the famed Troubador.
The movie is less a linear presentation of the key events of Elton John's life and career and more an ethereal, highly theatrical meditation on what it was like to be Elton John. His struggles with addiction and his sexuality are front and center and delivered warts and all. The music choices pull most of the big ones from his significant songbook, but not as historical markers. Instead, the songs are used as they would in a Broadway jukebox musical. They are set pieces designed to tell us more about an event or relationship and a couple of inspired choices actually cause us to listen to classic songs with new ears.
The first is "Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road." This is an early masterpiece in the John/Taupin catalog, but in the timeline of the movie, it's the mechanism for showing us their breakup. In a particularly masterful choice, it is a duet between the two, primarily sung by Jamie Bell's Bernie Taupin. "Bennie and the Jets" starts at a concert where Elton is bombed almost to the point of incapicity and then morphs into a highly choreographed sequence that illustrates his debauchery. "Rocket Man" is performed during a suicide attempt and we see the lengths Elton John went to to hide the pain before while performing.
Taron Egerton delivers all of this with relish. His performance is brave, honest, and robust. He doesn't look like Elton John, nor does he sound like him (he does his own singing), but he captures his essence. Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin is the perfect counterpart. He is a study of patient humanity as someone who is arguably the most important person in Elton John's life. There will be talk in a few months of whether Taron Egerton deserves an Oscar nomination. I'd say he does. His performance will be inevitably compared to Rami Malek's award-winning turn as Freddie Mercury. Egerton is every bit as strong as Malek, so he at least deserves the recognition. But, I'd submit that Jamie Bell should get some love for his performance, as well.
This morning during my drive time I listened to a sample of Elton John's music, including "I'm Still Standing," which is the final number in Rocketman (the shot-by-shot recreation of the music video is fun). It occurred to me that while I harbor great affection for much of these songs, my focus has always been on John's performances. I've never really listened to Taupin's lyrics. Now that I've experienced Rocketman, my appreciation is more complete. I'll never hear the songs the same.