Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Rocketman begins with a demon in platform boots and wings throwing open doors and strutting purposefully and with cocky confidence down a hallway. The lighting, the demon coming into focus, the red tinted glasses and horns, the white cinderblock hallway, everything about this says it's moments before a show. And then the demon pushes open another set of doors and takes his place in a 12 step circle. And so Rocketman takes its first step at burning to ashes the music biopic cliches that Walk Hard skewered so perfectly. Moments later, everyone from the group leaves the room and follows the child Reginald Dwight into a post-war British neighbourhood and a full song and dance number. The neighbours are in black and white, young Reg and the older Elton and the group are in colour. The boy and the adult lead the mayhem, singing The Bitch is Back, while the the camera spins with the neighbours and it's a flurry of colours and black and white and mid-50s English suburbia and adult Elton John and his therapy group are in the middle of this cyclone. It's giddy and the energy is contagious. And that energy in the opening number is something that Rocketman will keep up for most of its 2 hour running time.
And in those opening moments Rocketman lays out its thesis. Like the posters say, this is a movie based on a true fantasy. This is musical biography as magical realism. This no paint-by-numbers biography. There is no concern with pensive looks while pondering the deeper meaning of your life while waiting to go on stage. This is a movie where audiences float, where people duet at the bottom of a pool, where a breakfast scene pays homage to Citizen Kane with some vodka and orange juice. This a movie that celebrates the transition from adolescence to adult with one of the best single takes since Creed and one of the great musical numbers of ever. This is a movie where nearly every biopic cliche is met with a table clearing punchline. Spinning headlines and a montage of success is topped with our hero waking up disoriented asking "where am I?" A maid answers with a deadpan "At home".
Rocketman is unlike any other celebrity biopic in recent years is what I'm saying here. Its closest relative that I can think of off the top of my head is maybe All That Jazz, Bob Fosse's kind of, sort of autobiographical film. Both films play with magic realism and fantasy to tell their story, both are more concerned with the emotional truth than the factual the truth. And here I go, getting all pretentious. Look, Rocketman took my breath away, made me laugh out loud, and made me cry manly tears.
Rocketman is also unflinching. Unlike other biopics that present some of their subjects with halos and minimizes their faults and attempts to mainstream their life, Rocketman presents its subject as selfish and as a narcissist. As self-obsessed, as full of self-hatred. As trying to push everyone away while still demanding their love. But somehow, against all odds, against all logic, the audience still falls in love with Sir Elton Hercules John, still falls in love with Reginald Dwight. Maybe it's seeing all of his flaws on full display, seeing this legendary larger-than-all-of-life, actual-to-goodness genius as an actual human being, maybe that's the magic.
Rocketman is also a love letter to the friendship and creative partnership of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. The great love story in Rocketman is their platonic love story. For over 50 years these two have produced a body of work that rivals any of the great songwriting partnerships of the last century. Together they have created songs that are in our very DNA. They've always had each other backs and they've never turned on each other. There's a beautiful moment in Rocketman that frames Your Song as Bernie's words to Elton, Elton's music to Bernie. It really is stunning and beautiful. A friendship like their's is rare and Rocketman gives it all the respect and honour it deserves. Taron Egerton, as Elton John, and Jamie Bell, as Bernie Taupin, bring a realness, a naturalism, to their roles that gives this friendship life, that gives it roots.
Every performance in Rocketman is perfection. And then there's the voices. Taron Egerton, the kid from the Kingsman movies, does all of his own singing. What a voice. Soulful, powerful, with a range nearly as broad as the man he's playing. I'm so glad he went the Joaquin Phoenix route. It frees up the performance, makes it more his. Instead of trying to imitate Elton John, it allows Mr. Egerton to create a character and inhabit that character.
There are so many things to praise about Rocketman. So many of Elton John's ridiculous and over the top costumes are recreated perfectly, as are the almost as ridiculous fashions of the era. The camera work and the cinematography in this movie are all top shelf. Dexter Fletcher and his team seamlessly move Rocketman from realistic dialogue scenes to surreal musical numbers, sometimes without the audience noticing. A conversation happens, Elton sings a couple of lines and then boom goes the dynamite and the camera is flying around and people are dancing and it's all quite incredible.
And that brings me to Rocketman's secret weapon. The imagination of its director, Dexter Fletcher. Letting him unleash his and his team's imagination on this project was just about the best decision the film's producers had. I've never enjoyed a musical as much as I enjoyed this one. To be honest, I've never really enjoyed musicals. Until now. But Rocketman, Rocketman is a hell of a gateway drug. Now I get it.