Northampton Press

Tuesday, February 25, 2020


Friday, June 14, 2019 by Paul Willistein in Focus

“Rocketman” is a movie that wants to become a musical.

I predict “Rocketman” the movie will be transformed into a hugely successful, Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, following the conclusion of Sir Elton John’s farewell tour.

Early on in “Rocketman,” Sir Elton John reminisces about his youth as Reginald Dwight (remarkable Matthew Illesley in his movie acting debut), his given name, growing up in a working-class home in Great Britain. The entire neighborhood breaks out in song and dance on the street and sidewalk in a scene right out of “The Music Man” movie musical (1962).

Reginald’s mother, Sheila (almost unrecognizable Bryce Dallas Howard in a terrific turn), and grandmother, Ivy (memorable Gemma Jones), hear him at the upright piano, picking out melodies by ear from recorded songs from the album collection of his father, Stanley (Steven Mackintosh). Piano lessons begin.

Reginald has such promise that he receives a young musician’s scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. The teen Elton John (excellent Kit Connor) gets gigs, including as a member of Bluesology. Another production number is inspired by “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting”).

As directed by Dexter Fletcher (who completed the directing of another significant rock biopic, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” 2018, after director Bryan Singer was fired and for which Rami Malek received an actor Oscar for playing Freddie Mercury), “Rocketman” provides fascinating insights into the psyche of Elton John, the inspiration and craft of songwriting, and fame and fortune and its cost.

Fletcher retreams with Director of Photography George Richmond (“Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” 2017; “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” 2014), with whom he worked with on “Eddie the Eagle,” 2015; “Sunshine on Leith,” 2013, and ”Wild Bill,” 2011, each directed by Fletcher.

“Rocketman” is bookended by group therapy sessions in which Elton John recites a laundry list of addictions, discloses how he did, and did not, deal with his homosexuality, and reveals his misgivings about his upbringing, with his parents presented in an unfavorable light. John Reid (Richard Madden), a manager of Elton John, fares even worse.

One might presume “Rocketman” is mostly factual, or symbolically truthful, in its recounting of the life and career of Elton John since he’s executive producer of the film, and his Rocket Pictures apparently helped finance it. Credit screenwriter Lee Hall (Oscar nominee, screenplay, “Billy Elliot,” 2000, and the 2008 Broadway musical, with music by Elton John and which received 10 Tony Awards; screenplay, “Victoria & Abdul,” 2017; screenplay, “War Horse,” 2011) for the flamboyant take on rock’s most flamboyant star.

To say that nothing succeeds like excess is an understatment concerning Elton John. The outrageous costumes (credit Costumer Designer Julian Day, who also did “Bohemian Rhapsody”), all-consuming appetite for art, mansions, cars, and a lavish lifestyle that rivals royalty and the most ostentatious billionaires are depicted in “Rocketman.” The movie is worth seeing for it’s “Crazy, Rich Rock Star” details alone. Call it “A Star Is Torn,” or “The Sweet Smell of Excess.”

More important is the mysterious alchemy in the songwriting partnership of composer Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin (excellent Jamie Bell). The film, merely by presenting their songs, often in new interpretations, makes a convincing case that they are among popular music’s greatest songwriting teams, comparable to Lennon-McCartney, Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Gershwins, to name a few. The scenes between Elton John and Bernie Taupin are among the film’s most emotionally-satisfying and humorous.

“Rocketman” has its fair share of humor. One can’t help but laugh at the outrageousness of Elton John, who transformed himself from a Michael J. Pollard (“Bonnie And Clyde,” 1967) lookalike to one of the most iconic performers in music history. And yet, he was wracked and consumed by self-doubt. In his United States’ opening concert at a Los Angeles’ trendmaking venue, Elton John was dour at The Troubadour until taking the stage in a triumphant, feet-flying, piano-bench kicking rendition of “Crocodile Rock.”

Taron Egerton (“Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service”) is amazing as Elton John. Look for an actor Oscar nomination for Egerton. He gets the facial gestures near-perfect: the furrowed brow, arched eyebrow, pensive smile, awkward body language and, yes, the cosmic loneliness, infinite sadness and volcanic temper. He conveys the show-business trope of the sad clown.

Fletcher has a lot of fun with “Rocketman.” You will, too, especially if you’re a fan of Elton John. And who isn’t? Or who couldn’t be? Fletcher sets up many of Elton John’s songs as elaborate musical set pieces, right out of the Golden Age of Hollywood. And Fletcher reinterprets other Elton John songs, giving them renewed meaning. Fletcher has the courage to present the over-the-top story of one of rock’s greatest showmen in an over-the-top, exagerrated, giddy style.

In some kind of way, “Rocketman” is a gay fantasia. The budget for the distinctive large-frame and bejeweled glasses alone might be more than the budget for many independent films. Near the film’s conclusion, “I’m Still Standing” replicates a music video and, given the Elton Johh storyline that preceeds it, becomes much more.

“Rocketman” is a spectacular triumph and, coming as it does with Elton John’s autobiography, “Me,” set for October publication, and his multi-year “Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour,” which opened Sept. 8, 2018, at PPL Center, Allentown, and is to conclude Dec. 16, 2020 at The O2, London, United Kingdom. “Rocketman” is a must-see for Elton John fans, as well as fans of movie musicals and pop music fans.

“Rocketman” is group therapy, not only for Elton John, but for a generation of fans. To invert a phrase in the film, his song became “Your Song” and his hits became many of our songs. Don’t miss it.

“Elton John,” MPAA rated R (Restricted Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.) for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content; Genre: Biography, Drama, Musical; Run time: 2 hrs., 1 min. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous: At the conclusion of “Rocketman,” there’s a text summation of Elton John’s life: sobriety (28 years), Elton John AIDS Foundation ($400 million raised) and marriage to David Furnish (a producer of “Rocketman”). Photos of Taron Egerton playing Elton John in “Rocketman” are juxtaposed with photos of Elton John. Unlike in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” where Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury acted to original recordings, Egerton sang most of the Elton John hits heard in “Rocketman,” produced by Giles Martin, son of George Martin, The Beatles’ producer. The soundtrack has some 22 songs. Elton John sings on one, a duet with Egerton for”(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.”

Box Office, June 7-9: Cute and cuddly won over the superheroes and the horrific and lizard-like, as the animated sequel, “The Secret Life Of Pets 2,” co-directed by Parkland High School graduate Chris Renaud, opened at No. 1, with $47.1 million, weekend, $48 million, as the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe opus, “Dark Phoenix” opened at No. 2 with a lackluster $33 million, “Aladdin” dropped one place to No. 3, with $24.5 million, $232.3 million, three weeks, and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” dropped three places to No. 4, with $15.5 million, $78.5 million, two weeks.

5. “Rocketman” dropped three places, $14 million, $50.4 million, two weeks. 6. “Ma” dropped two places, $7.8 million, $32.7 million, two weeks. 7. “John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum” dropped two places, $7.4 million, $138.6 million, four weeks. 8. “Avengers: Endgame” dropped two places, $4.8 million, $824.3 million, seven weeks. 9. Pokémon Detective Pikachu” dropped two places, $2.9 million, $137.4 million, five weeks. 10. “Booksmart” dropped two places, $1.5 million, $17.8 million, three weeks.

Unreel, June 14:

“Men in Black: International,” PG-13: F. Gary Gray directs Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Rebecca Ferguson and Emma Thompson in the Science-Fiction Action Comedy. An insider in MiB is the suspect.

“Shaft,” R: Director: Tim Story directs Samuel L. Jackson, Alexandra Shipp, Avan Jogia and Regina Hall in a remake of the 1971 action film and followup to the 2000 “Shaft.”

“The Dead Don’t Die,” R: Jim Jarmusch directs Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Alyssa Maria App and Carl Arcilesi in the Comedy.