Movie review: Elton John's music shines, drives story in 'Rocketman'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Jun 20 2019 02:59 PM

Taron Egerton transforms into Elton John in 'Rocketman.' Handout

MANILA -- Fresh at the heels of "Bohemian Rhapsody" last year which recounted for us the life of Queen frontman Freddy Mercury, here comes another film that traces the life and career of another legendary name in pop music -- Elton John. 

The director of "Rocketman," Dexter Fletcher, directed "Bohemian Rhapsody" for its final two weeks of shooting, when original director Brian Singer dropped out of the project. 

I only learned about Elton John in the 1980s when he was part of the quarter Dionne and Friends singing "That's What Friends are For." From then, I went back and checked out his hit songs from the 1970s and had been a big fan of his work ever since. In my opinion, John had written and sung some of the best pop songs ever recorded. 

I had seen him in concert once in the 2000s, and even then, he was still quite an entertainer live. By that time, John's performance style had already toned down several notches than how he was performing in the 1970s with those crazy colorful costumes, as I had seen in photographs and videos. I can imagine John's career may actually parallel Mercury's because of their individual flamboyant personas.

The film began with John, dressed in a wild all-red devil costume, with huge feathered wings, high-raised collar and curved horns, attending a group therapy session, admitting his addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex and shopping. From there, there were flashbacks to show his family life as a child Reginald Dwight with frosty, insensitive, uncaring parents. He was a piano prodigy who can play any complex tune back even after listening to the music only once. When he hit his stride creating hit pop songs, then his phenomenal career and hedonistic lifestyle as Elton John took off. 

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It was interesting that John's songs were fully integrated into the script, with characters actually breaking into song at certain points in flights of fantasy. Fans familiar with John's discography will immediately notice that the songs were not presented in precise order when they were released, so this was not a cut-and-dried biopic where factual accuracy was foremost. Here the songs were used as the scene required them for a more emotionally driven storytelling. 

The upbeat first song "The Bitch Is Back" (1974) was sung in a flashback as a young boy Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illeslie) was gleefully prancing and dancing around their neighborhood. "I Want Love" (2001, with a memorable single-take music video with Robert Downey, Jr.) was sung by teenage Reginald (Kit Connor), along with his cold father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), acerbic mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and supportive granny Ivy (Gemma Jones). 

In "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" (1973), John transitions from teen to young adult, played by Taron Egerton. By then, he would already call himself Elton John, derived from his Bluesology bandmate saxophone player Elton Dean, and supposedly John Lennon, whose photograph Elton just saw on the wall when he was asked for his surname. When he met Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), "Your Song" (1970) and a fruitful songwriting partnership was born. "Crocodile Rock" (1972) was sung at the Troubadour Club in Elton John's American debut tour.

"Honky Cat" (1972) was sung as a duet between Elton and his manager/lover John Reid (Richard Madden). Their love scene together is said to be a first for any major Hollywood production. Reid was portrayed to be the film's antagonist with the selfish abusive way he treated John. (It is interesting to note that Reid would also become Queen's manager in the late 1970s. He was played in "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Aidan Gillen.) 

"Rocket Man" (1972) would accompany John's shocking suicide attempt scene, which would dramatically transition into his memorable concert performance at the Dodgers Stadium.

More of Elton John's hits would be sung as the movie went along "Tiny Dancer" (1972) "Bennie and the Jets" (1974) "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" (1974) (as a duet with his wife Renate Blauel, played by Celine Schoenmaker), "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" (1976), "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (1973), and of course, "I'm Still Standing" (1983) as the final anthem of strength and survival. 

Taron Egerton does one better than Rami Malek (Oscar Best Actor winner last year for playing Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody) because Egerton actually does all of his singing as John by himself. From the animated film "Sing" (2016), we already heard Egerton, at that time only known for playing Eggsy in "Kingsman Secret Service" (2014), sing his heart out as the voice of gorilla Johnny, singing "I'm Still Standing." 

Egerton was singing and acting immersively at the same time, and this was even more remarkable during the darker episodes of John's life. Egerton's makeup as John was eerily accurate, down to that little gap in his front teeth, with the glasses and costumes to complete the picture. 

This was not an ordinary or conventional biopic. While the factual events were there, psychedelic fantasy was also incorporated into the storytelling. At the Troubadour concert, there was a scene showing John and his audience floating in midair with the music. At the suicide scene, Elton was shown sinking down into the swimming pool where he saw his younger self sitting at the pool floor. 

This was an abashedly florid gay parts of the movie which may not sit well with some more conservative members of the viewing public (even if they were not explicit). Anyhow, true fans will love how the film captured John's unique sense of showbiz swank and sophistication which made him an unlikely pop superstar. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."