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Overall Rating

Awesome: 16.67%
Worth A Look50%
Average: 16.67%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 16.67%

1 review, 6 user ratings

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Rocketman (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"Plays the hits."
4 stars

That "Rocketman" is a biography made with the full participation of it subject is a little less concerning than it is in other cases; Elton John has seldom shied away from shied away from admitting he can be a complete mess. Indeed, some of his stories of his early career verge on black comedy, and this movie is at its best when it catches that vibe - a life of extremes that is often kind of ridiculous in its details. It doesn't always manage that, but it does often enough to be, by turns, an entertaining musical and biography.

It is, in a lot of ways, the sort of paint-by-numbers story of fame and fortune most have seen a dozen times - Elton is born Reginald Dwight and displays a natural gift for the piano early. His working-class mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and distant father (Steven Mackintosh) split, and while he proves to be a great piano player able to create a catchy tune instinctively, words don't come. Fortunately, Elton (Taron Egerton) is soon introduced to Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), a tone-deaf lyricist with a fascination for the American west who soon becomes Elton's close friend and long-time collaborator. A trip to America makes Elton a sensation - the first step to becoming the most successful recording artist of the 1970s - and also introduces him to John Reid (Richard Madden), who will become his lover and his manager, although very much the sort that is probably using the former to make money via the latter. Pile being closeted on top of that - and it's a recipe for indulging in every self-destructive vice imaginable.

If you're a fan, you've probably heard the story in many of its details; if you're not, you've probably seen the general arc of it applied to some other artist. Fortunately, Elton was flamboyant as all heck during this period, and that gives the filmmakers room to go nuts visually from the very first scene. Even if they weren't going the approach of the jukebox musical, they'd have to make peace with his huge glasses and ridiculous outfits, and they actually do very well by that: The costumes tell a story themselves, that of a guy barely out of his teens who never figured out how to be cool being thrust into the spotlight and later had invested so much of himself in entertaining that he needed to put on an absurdly happy face. The rehab-center bit that frames the movie has him literally dismantling the flashy costume he came in, and the moments that have him at his most honest have him stripped down to his underpants and maybe a bathrobe.

Of course, the costumes also make the musical numbers brighter and more entertaining, although the filmmakers are kind of hit-and-miss in how they use Elton's pretty solid catalog. At its best, Rocketman is a pretty great musical, and a cheeky one, whether opening with pre-teen Reggie singing "The Bitch Is Back" to a dozen visual jokes scattered through "Honky Cat". Existing pop songs don't always adapt to being chapters in a longer story well, though, and a few mostly serve as hitting fast-forward with singing and dancing ("Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting", for instance, is a ton of fun to watch, but the words and action aren't really connected to the story). Other times, the object mostly seems to be trying to cram twenty-odd songs in, and it's clumsy.

Taron Egerton sings them pretty well, though, and he does a fine job with what could be a pretty unforgiving part. His Elton is a big, flashy performer and a sweet, shy kid turned introverted and angry, and director Dexter Fletcher gives him the chance to make big leaps from one to another in ways that make the audience laugh while also stabbing a bit. It's never subtle, but this isn't a subtle guy. It's appropriate that he's got the most chemistry with Jamie Bell's Taupin (the pair continue to write together in reality), and Bell's portrayal of the guy is a lot of fun, a likable lower-voltage nerd who is a quietly crucial sidekick. It's an interesting dynamic - it's always in the back of the audience's mind that the words to all the songs are his even if they're used to tell Elton's story, which amplifies his self-effacing nature a bit, and makes it kind of a big deal when Bell actually gets a number. They're surrounded by people doing good, targeted work - Bruce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh as parents who are always just a bit wrapped up in themselves, Gemma Jones as a delightfully supportive grandmother, Richard Madden playing John Reid with relish. Special notice goes to Celinde Schoenmaker, whose part as Elton's wife is as much of a blip in the movie as it was in real life - maybe ten minutes including a song - but illustrates Elton's desperation perfectly and wouldn't work nearly so well if she and Egerton didn't nail every second.

Lee Hall's script plays fairly fast and loose with some things, even before getting into how the songs are all over the place chronologically, but it's often done with a fair amount of purpose. Fletcher and editor Chris Dickens will sometimes cut in a way that confuses to simulate the subject's drug-addled haze, and they are good enough with fine detail to use similar scenes to show how thin the line between a performer genuinely connecting with an audience and putting on an almost contemptuous mask can be. They're not afraid to recognize the tremendous absurdity of some of this by doing things like playing Elton falling down a flight of stairs for a laugh even as the audience recognizes that it's awful that he's hitting bottom, or ending the film on a note that is campy as heck rather than seriously triumphant.

Those clever, weird bits are the ones that a viewer will remember afterward, even if they do spend a fair amount of time waiting for the film to grind its way to another milestone or through another hit while it's running. Maybe it needs to slow down in order to work at all. All that time doing the basics well enough with some inspired sequences makes "Rocketman" a good biopic where one can see the potential of a great one, which is better than the by-the-numbers result it could have been.

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originally posted: 06/05/19 09:07:36
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User Comments

11/21/19 Dr. Lao Saturday night's alight, and so is this movie 3 stars
7/20/19 John Queerbugger Elton John is a load of old rubbish specifically because hes a poof. 1 stars
6/21/19 Louise (the real one) Excellent - got my toes tapping, and faithful to the man himself and his great songs. 5 stars
6/11/19 Charles Tatum A laughably pathetic movie about a laughably pathetic individual. 1 stars
6/10/19 Alan Lee A hugely entertaining warts and all biopic 5 stars
6/03/19 Bob Dog Quality but depressing musical biopic of Elton John's early years. 3 stars
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  31-May-2019 (R)
  DVD: 27-Aug-2019

  22-May-2019 (15)

  30-May-2019 (M)
  DVD: 27-Aug-2019

Directed by
  Dexter Fletcher

Written by
  Lee Hall

  Taron Egerton
  Jamie Bell
  Richard Madden
  Bryce Dallas Howard
  Gemma Jones

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