Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Rocketman” (2019)

Dexter Fletcher’s musical biopic tells the story of how Reginald Dwight (Taron Egerton) became the showstopping sensation Elton Hercules John, looking at how he discovered a natural talent for learning and writing music at a young age, later going on to gain a scholarship at a music academy, and then getting record deals thanks to his collaborations with songwriting partner and lifelong friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). But great success brings the inevitable troubles and as Reg/Elton falls under the spell of abusive opportunist manager John Reid (Richard Madden), he falls deeper into addiction, faces the cold shoulder from his distant parents, and he drives friends and family away as he strives to be genuinely loved and to “juggle” his dual identities of both Reginald Dwight and Elton John.

Based on the early trailers that looked very intriguing and imaginative, along with the news that the very talented Taron Egerton was going to be taking on the lead role, Rocketman promised to be “Bohemian Rhapsody done properly”, a “rags to riches” biopic, if you will, of a very famous musician that charts both the highs and lows of the protagonist’s glittering career and educating us about how these famous songs got written. I got the impression that this film would be more inventive than Bo Rhap, the story would be stronger, and the leading actor would actually sing their own songs, excellent though Rami Malek’s performance was otherwise.

Well, though I may be being unfair to Bohemian Rhapsody by instantly comparing it to this particular film, Rocketman is a far superior musical biopic and, so far, it’s one of the most enjoyable films that I’ve seen this year.

What stands out most above all else, what makes this such a successful rock biopic, is the all-important music and the all-singing, all-dancing sequences that often accompany the songs. Because Rocketman’s musical numbers are bright, colourful and full of energy (much like Elton himself when he’s on stage, I guess) and the more energetic scenes are directed with undeniable passion, imagination and heart by director Dexter Fletcher; it’s clear that directing this project really means something to him and he proves to be the ideal choice to helm this film as the musical sequences are the highlights that put genuine smiles on faces and get the feet tapping. It also helps a great deal that the songs are actually sung by the actors themselves (no dubbing to be found here) and many of the principals really give it a go, seemingly having a real good time and all contributing to singing the popular songs, the more popular of which I knew and mentally sang along with during the film!

But what makes Rocketman‘s musical moments stand out so much against other, similar music biopics is in the distinctive blending of fantasy and reality. Very often in this film, we will start off on a “normal” scene only to switch to something more fantastical, animated and lively, usually an all-singing, all-dancing musical number where we see Reg/Elton come up with an idea for a song, and this cleverly gets us inside his head and lets us get a glimpse of his personality and to know what he’s going through in a very theatrical and entertaining way, not resorting to exposition in the script or some other stale biopic trope. And thankfully, rather than just throwing in as many Elton John songs as possible in order to get through as much of his back catalogue as possible, the songs are carefully chosen and serve a purpose in their respective scenes – the lyrics of the songs do the job of the script by illustrating what Elton is thinking and feeling.

And even though it can’t really avoid the tried-and-true biopic formula, Rocketman still has a strong narrative and script and with this film, we’re given a fully developed picture of Reg’s childhood, how he and Bernie Taupin perfectly complimented each other (Elton being gifted with musical knowledge and an amazing voice but having problems with lyrics and Bernie being adept at songwriting but also tone deaf and not a performer), and the film takes its time when charting the course of his success – not like Bo Rhap when we saw his family life and the band putting together their first album in the first 15 minutes! But saying all of this, when the inevitable downturn occurs, the film does drag its feet and as events got more serious and slower paced, I found myself less interested in the film and occasionally struggled to remain alert. The film also includes Elton’s marriage Renate Blauel but this particular part of the story is hurriedly introduced and then quickly moved on from, creating an ultimately pointless part of the story and a life moment that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. Still, I felt as though I learned something about Elton John with this film and despite a few nitpicks, Rocketman has a story that is a cut above your average musical biopic.

Alongside Fletcher’s committed direction and the actors’ contribution to the singing, the film is brilliantly designed and is often bright and a delight to watch on the big screen. In particular, the bold costumes as well as the hair and make-up are really something special; as evidenced by the real life photos found at the end of the film, the outfits that Taron Egerton wears are based on the stage outfits that Elton himself wore so clearly, a lot of valuable research has gone into making the visual design of the film as authentic as possible and the larger-than-life costumes are great to look at and they make the film as realistic as possible. In addition, the make-up and hair, especially on Taron Egerton, is noteworthy and there are plenty of instances where he really does look very much like Elton, contributing to the authenticity and credibility of the film.

But of course, how could I go this long without mentioning the man at the centre of it all? In the spotlight, WELSH actor Taron Egerton is excellent as the memorable musician; obviously, he sings a lot of the time but he proves himself to be more than up to this challenge and he has a lot of fun while he performs, singing all of the songs brilliantly and performing/dancing with gusto, enthusiasm and stage presence. I mean, did you see Sing? Man can deliver “I’m Still Standing” like a true superstar. Spot on.

So while performing the music, he’s perfectly at ease and he has a blast, but he’s also very capable in the non-musical moments as he makes the “character” his own and doesn’t seem like someone simply doing an impression. His Elton can be perfectly likeable and supportable but when things get tough, he effectively shows frustration and inner turmoil, lashing out at the “hangers on” and opportunists and in scenes with his distant family/friends, he convinces us of his pain, hardship and sadness, using well practiced facial expressions and body language, overall delivering an ideally layered and committed performance.

Backing him up, supporting the star whilst making their own marks on the film, the supporting cast is a very strong one and they help a great deal in making Rocketman such a blast (ha!); Jamie Bell is just as likeable as Egerton and as Bernie Taupin, he’s a charismatic and very watchable figure and he gets on very well with his co-star, giving us a believable and affectionate onscreen friendship, and Richard Madden also fits in quite well and gives us something different than what we’ve seen from him before as the opportunistic and manipulative Paul Prenter John Reid, a solid antagonist who injects some tension and drama into the film through his interactions with Reg/Elton. We’ve also got Stephen Graham who works well as the tough but trustworthy studio boss Dick James (but no Scouse accent for a change! That’s a first!), Charlie Rowe is lovely and supportive as producer Ray Williams, Gemma Jones is warm and affectionate as Reg’s nan, Tom Bennett is is usual goofy self as stepdad Fred, and Bryce Dallas Howard immerses herself in her character and makes an impact as Reg’s mum Sheila.

A fun, bright and highly enjoyable musical biopic that has an enlightening story, authentic design, a lovely cast, a charismatic and powerful lead performance, and musical sequences that are directed with winning passion, energy and imagination.

★ ★ ★ ★

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