Review: ‘Rocketman’ gives us Elton John’s redemption story

Elton John is played by a terrific Taron Egerton in ‘Rocketman’ (photo: IMDB)

There is an early moment in “Rocketman” when the not-yet-Elton John gets some advice from a member of a touring soul-music revue, for whom the wide-eyed innocent is playing piano. “You got to kill the person you were born to be,” he is told, “so you can become the person you want to be.”

“Rocketman,” a rock ’n’ roll fantasia, is basically about how the now-iconic pop star took that advice, and didn’t, and in some ways couldn’t. Reinvention is no easy feat, not when you have grown up an unloved, bespectacled, closeted middle-class Brit with a name like Reg Dwight, parents out of a Roald Dahl novel and a hairline that is rapidly heading north. But in some ways, there is a very Christian concept underlying “Rocketman,” namely Elton’s redemption—even if it is from his own biography.

Advertisement

There is a very Christian concept underlying “Rocketman,” namely Elton’s redemption—even if it is from his own biography.

Destined to be one of the year’s big hits, “Rocketman” is a largely joyous affair. There is a benevolent tsunami of music tumbling off the screen, as the film gives life à la Busby Berkeley to the musical dreams of the young Reggie (the wonderful, choirboy-ish Matthew Illesley), the slightly older Reg (Kit Connor) and finally their adult incarnation—played by a terrific Taron Egerton, who brings an often uncannily John-like timbre to the dozens of songs that populate the soundtrack. He does something else with the music, too: I finally know the actual lyrics to songs I have been hearing for 40 years.

The movie’s framing device is a 12-step meeting—into which the cocaine-addicted, alcoholic, shop-a-holic, sex-a-holic Elton barges in wearing full demonic stage gear—from crimson jumpsuit to feather-boa wings to a headpiece with horns. The satanic theme is no accident, of course, Elton being a self-hating pain in the neck whose progressively flamboyant stage act (he looks at times like a cloisonné Christmas ornament) mirrors his increasing dependence on booze, drugs and the kind of relationships that make him want booze and drugs.

Reinvention is no easy feat, not when you have grown up a bespectacled, closeted middle-class Brit with a name like Reg Dwight.

He is a mess. He will, we know, get better. “What were you like as a child?” someone asks, and it is too much of a setup not to be a slight wink to the audience. Still, it serves its purpose: We are off into Elton’s past, among the grubby postwar English streets and the unhappy domicile where Mom (Dallas Bryce Howard) is coarse, Dad (Steven Mackintosh) is cold and his grandmother (Gemma Jones) is the one sympathetic soul in his whole young life.

She will be replaced, in a sense, by Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), the lyricist with whom a meeting is arranged by their mutual, hellish music manager Dick James (Stephen Graham, looking distractingly like Tennessee Williams). They meet for tea, bond over the song “Streets of Laredo” and form a partnership that is both lifelong and a lifeline for Elton during his more turbulent periods, which are various and sundry.

I finally know the actual lyrics to songs I have been hearing for 40 years.

This relationship is the soul of the film, and in many ways rescues it from being frivolous or overly formulaic. Elton, having accepted his homosexuality, makes an perfunctory pass at Bernie early on, but from then on they are a team, each knowing his role in the partnership and the partnership becoming something more. They are “brothers,” they say more than once, and of course the nadir of Elton’s upward-downward trajectory of self-destruction comes when he puts that bond in jeopardy.

Meanwhile…there is music, lots of it, with songs often shoehorned into narrative service. One of the things that becomes obvious about “Rocketman” is that for all its cinematic extravagance, it could very well have been on Broadway (where John has scored “The Lion King,” “Aida” and “Billy Elliot,” though the movie story ends before all that). It might yet be, given the path of these things. Like “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” or “Jersey Boys,” the film is a jukebox musical, the story almost an excuse for the songs.

 

The more common comparison upon the release of “Rocketman” release will be to the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” They have the same director, after all (Dexter Fletcher, who completed “Bohemian Rhapsody” after Bryan Singer was bid adieu), and foreshadow an endless stream of rock biopics. They also feature subjects who struggle (Elton less than Freddy) with their sexual orientation and with addictive substances, and whose descent into squalor is more than a little predictable. (Oddly enough, they both feature gay men who marry women and—gasp—make them unhappy.) Where “Rocketman” wins, though, is in its happy abdication of stark reality. The songs, the color, the dancing and, yes, the redemption are all intended to make people happy. And will.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Denise Delurgio
4 months 3 weeks ago

Have you read the review (Not a Catholic one) that said that Rocketman is the first American movie to show gay mens' sex act on the screen? That's what I won't pay to see, although I love Elton John's music, and I love a redemption story.

[Are you a smart, funny, spiritual person who wants to chat with other smart, funny, spiritual people about movies? Join America’s Catholic Movie Club on Facebook!]

Advertisement
More: Films

The latest from america

A fire burns a tract of Amazon jungle on Sept. 2, 2019, as it is cleared by a farmer in Machadinho do Oeste, Brazil. The Brazilian Catholic bishops are pressuring the government to guarantee the safety of several Amazonian indigenous peoples. (CNS photo/Ricardo Moraes, Reuters)
Rainforests are not the only things under threat in the Amazon region. There has also been an uptick in violence against native peoples: land invasions, illegal exploitation of natural resources and damage caused by invaders of indigenous lands went from 96 in 2017 to 109 in 2018.
Eduardo Campos LimaOctober 22, 2019
photo from iStock by RedEye
While climbing down off a freight train in western Texas, I committed to giving my life to God.
Andrew Robert LaBarreOctober 22, 2019
Truth and beauty can be found outside the walls of church, in a space that belongs to those who worship differently.
Jordan Denari DuffnerOctober 22, 2019
Clouds of smoke from burning cars mar the skyline of Culiacan, Mexico. The Mexican city lived under drug cartel terror for 12 hours as gang members forced the government to free a drug lord. (AP Photo/Hector Parra)
Mexico is on edge after a wave of violence hit the country last week, culminating in heavy fighting between the army and alleged members of organized crime in Culiacán, the capital of the northern state of Sinaloa, that lasted for hours on Oct. 17.
Jan-Albert HootsenOctober 21, 2019