Rocketman Review: Fantasy musical fails to launch

Taron Egerton’s performance as Elton is dizzyingly, dazzlingly high-octane

Rocketman Movie Review

Stars: 2.5

Directed by: Dexter Fletcher

Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, Richard Madden

Rocketman begins with Taron Egerton as Elton John bursting onto the scene in a flaming orange jumpsuit and horned headgear. Where is he headed towards? Group therapy for a rehab stint from all kinds of addictions: sex, booze, drugs, shopping. The scene is cringey and in-your-face, staged to elicit a few laughs. This then opens up the movie -- through a series of flashbacks, we learn all about Elton Hercules John nee Reginald Dwight’s childhood, his coming of age, his entry into rock-and-roll superstardom, his life of glitter and excess and drugs and orgies, and his fall from grace before he picks himself up. Director Dexter Fletcher arranges the flashbacks to some of Elton John’s best-known songs, replete with extras bursting into song, all for effect.

You will remember that Fletcher took over from Bryan Singer to wrap up filming of last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, another musician biopic about Queen’s Freddie Mercury (I reviewed it here). Fletcher has proven his dexterity (pardon) with marrying music and biography of an iconic artiste in the tone and timbre of the central character’s personality. And Rocketman fires up all right.

Subtlety has never been a word associated with Elton John, and it’s safe to say that it’s not going to start with Rocketman. That part is something Dexter Fletcher gets right, rhinestone eyewear included. Elton John as the executive producer was involved with the movie as it was being made, because of which, I suspect, Rocketman veers into campy, corny, vanity project territory. We all wish we could have our own personal soundtracks, and Elton John gets it here. And that’s what it comes down to. The scenes that are staged to his songs seem contrived, enough to have Yash Raj Films nodding until collective whiplash for generations to come.

Taron Egerton’s performance as Elton is dizzyingly, dazzlingly, electrifyingly high-octane – every single scene he is in is his own, pulsating with a ferocity that will be compared (odiously) to Rami Malek’s Freddie. And he is beautifully complemented by the mellow, subdued performance of Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin, from wannabe glam-rock long-haired songwriter to all-weather, never-say-die friend. Bell, in certain scenes, almost steals the show. The parts of the movie that celebrate the John-Taupin friendship, their brotherhood, their artistic marriage, is flawless. Another thing Fletcher gets right.

You have to appreciate how the director has woven some of Elton John’s musical superhits into the script (the scene that is set to ‘This is Your Song’ had me shedding a tear or two, but ‘Don’t let the sun go down on me’ left me so, so disappointed). But overall, this is a long pity party of a genius whose genius is not captured in any form or to any degree that befits him. For a movie about one of music’s greatest artistes, that it fails to do so is a colossal disappointment. There is one scene towards the end, set in the group therapy session that bookends the movie, that made me cringe so hard I’ll have to write about it some time. Some other time, though.

What ultimately undoes the movie is all the over-the-top style over substance: the script is weak. Rocketman would have worked better as a musical on stage. This is more theatre than cinema. And this is what Fletcher gets wrong. Perhaps because this came too soon on the heels of BoRhap the movie, or perhaps because both movies are about musical superstars who had a moment of reckoning in their careers, or perhaps because this is as formulaic as Bohemian Rhapsody: Rocketman fails to launch. The kaleidoscopic framing device Fletcher uses oozes with theatricality, that despite its best intentions, fails to get to the heart of things.

It’s essentially Elton John telling his story the way he wants it to be told. In other words, it’s all about the persona, criminally little about the person, the artiste, the genius that gave this world some of the catchiest songs ever written. Because of this, the film doesn’t do Reginald Dwight’s musical genius justice, it just puts the elaborately constructed flamboyant character – sequins and feathered boas intact -- that is Elton Hercules John, on a gilded vaudevillian pedestal. Which is a shame, because Bohemian Rhapsody, for all its flaws, put Freddie’s artistry front and centre.

And the Rocketman soundtrack begs the question: why-oh-why no Sacrifice, Mr. Fletcher? Cold, cold act, hard done by you.

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