By Gregg Shapiro
Arriving in theaters about six months apart, it’s almost impossible not to find a multitude of similarities between the Elton John biopic “Rocketman” (Paramount) and the Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody”. So, let’s dispense of them right away. Elton John and Freddie Mercury were both musically gifted, piano-playing, substance-abusing, dentally-challenged, flamboyant gay men who favored flashy stage-wear and whose music dominated all of the 1970s and most of the 1980s. Additionally, it was actor/director Dexter Fletcher, at the helm of “Rocketman”, who completed “Bohemian Rhapsody” when director Bryan Singer was fired.
However, it’s the differences, including the decidedly happier ending of “Rocketman”, that set the movies apart. Whereas “Bohemian Rhapsody” took a somewhat more traditional (if chronologically liberal) approach to the concept, “Rocketman” is far more impressionistic. At turns a musical, complete with choreographed dance numbers, within a musical biopic, “Rocketman” is as fantastical as its subject matter.
The film opens with Elton John (Taron Egerton, who also starred in Fletcher’s “Eddie The Eagle”, in a career-high performance which includes singing), in full concert regalia entering a meeting at a recovery center. Strung out and pissed off, he launches into his story. The scenes at the meeting are interwoven throughout the movie and find Elton in various stages of undress, symbolic of the layers of himself that he is revealing.
Talented young Elton, known as Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) at the time, lives with his indifferent mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), itinerant father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and devoted grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones). When his musical ear is recognized he is given a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. But his personal musical interests lean more toward the rock and roll of the era and soon he’s playing in pubs and forming a band (Bluesology). The older Elton (Egerton) is also getting kissed by guys, including a member of the soul group with which Bluesology was touring.
With his star continuing to ascend, he meets with music publisher Dick James (Stephen Graham) and his assistant Ray (Charlie Rowe), who set him up with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). As they say, the rest is musical history. They write songs that become hits. Elton John has a groundbreaking 1970 show at the legendary WeHo music venue The Troubadour (whose proprietor Doug Weston, played with flair by Tate Donovan, is presented as sexually fluid).
A management shuffle involving seductive and predatory agent/manager John Reid (Richard Madden), something else Elton and Freddie had in common, leads to one of Elton’s first serious gay romantic entanglements. But as he becomes the hardest working man in show business, Elton’s inner demons come to the fore and he simultaneously numbs and fuels himself with alcohol and cocaine, as well as other addictions.
Much of Elton John’s “never ordinary” story, including his marriage of convenience to Renate (Celinde Schoenmaker) and his eventual coming out as gay, may be as familiar as his music, but “Rocketman” puts an out-of-this-world spin on the telling. The presentation is occasionally distracting, but Egerton is triumphant in his portrayal of Elton John and may very well earn himself an Oscar nomination.
Peach Rating: 3.5/5 peaches – a ripe peach.