There is an important difference between “Rocketman,” the freshly spangled and zingy Elton John biopic, and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the gonzo box office TV-movie-of-the-week retelling of Queen’s saga to which “Rocketman” will inevitably be compared: John is alive.
As a producer on his film, which opens May 31, John, 72, could inject personal stories and memories in ways that Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen could only rely on secondhand in their capturing of the life of deceased bandmate Freddie Mercury.
Midway through “Rocketman,” an anxious and panicked John, portrayed by the wonderfully chameleonic Taron Egerton, calls his mother from a phone booth on the way to a performance to inform her that he is gay.
She isn’t shocked, nor angry, but her cutting summation to her son - that as a gay man he will never be loved properly - is the type of emotional heart stab that only John could effectively relay to Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays his self-involved mother, Sheila Farebrother.
Those expecting “Rocketman” to follow the blueprint of an insert-name-of-classic-rock-artist-here bio will be disappointed – and for good reason. The film ignores constraints and instead follows the muse of its feathered and sequined subject, a complicated man who ultimately triumphs (even today, as he continues his sold-out farewell tour), but along the way allows his considerable demons – drinking, drug abuse, sex addiction, anger issues – to nearly kill him.
John’s love life as a gay man, particularly his relationship with dashing, if devious, first manager John Reid (Richard Madden), is portrayed realistically, but never gratuitously. John was adamant that every aspect of his life – the sex, the cocaine snorting, the affinity for vodka, the suicide attempt(s) – be conveyed as his real-life experiences, not glossed-over edits, and the film is richer for his honesty.
“Rocketman” is constructed as a jukebox musical – the thing is ready-made for Broadway – and while the format is occasionally awkward, it’s still compelling. The songs shoehorned to propel the story of John’s life aren’t used chronologically, so you’ll see child-age piano prodigy Elton bouncing around the streets to “The Bitch is Back,” his difficult family - all weighed down by loneliness - sharing the lines of the potent “I Want Love” and John, in his 1970 U.S. breakthrough at the Troubadour, literally going airborne at the piano in a blissful moment of fantasy as he intoxicates the crowd with “Crocodile Rock.”
(John fans will smile at the references to John and Bernie Taupin’s excitement at seeing the Hollywood Tower Records, where the singer would become a legendarily generous customer.)
Some of the timeless John/Taupin songs are musically massaged for dramatic effect. “Bennie and the Jets” is injected with an angry thrust, “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” contains a noticeable percussive kick and the duet of sorts between John and steadfast lyricist Taupin – portrayed with tender brotherliness by Jamie Bell – on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is deeply affecting.
Egerton provides his own vocals and, while he might not be an audible John doppelganger, he possesses a lovely tone that is showcased during the creation of “Your Song,” a scene about a pop-rock masterpiece that seems unbelievable but is (mostly) accurate.
Director Dexter Fletcher - who, interestingly, assumed directing duties for “Bohemian Rhapsody” after the Bryan Singer mess - deftly balances the melancholy that threaded John’s life with the euphoric ride that accompanied his massive musical fame.
By the time John hits his “I’m Still Standing” victory (again, ignore the timeline – the song bowed in 1982 and in the film is part of John’s framing device in rehab, which wasn’t until 1990), there is the subliminal push that this is a man to be cheered.
John deserves our applause, no doubt, for his contributions to the rock music canon and his lavish performances. But for being an oft-nasty substance abuser who worked diligently to become a better person, one rooted in charity and family? That deserves our respect.
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