“Rocketman”: A Fantasia that Soars

Photo/Paramount Pictures

I’m 15 and worried about how far back I am in the misty early morning line outside a Southern California suburban Sears. The long queue will wend through the appliances section, down a popcorn-strewn escalator and into the basement where the magic Ticketron computer is sputtering out tickets for Elton John at the Forum in 1974. The tension is great, but my friends and I emerge lucky. I wave my ticket like I’m Charlie Bucket who just found out he will go to Willy Wonka’s factory, but in this case the candy will all be in the sparkling costumes and music when we see ‘The Bitch is Back’ tour (though I’m not be allowed to call it that around my mother) and our guide will be a mischievous host who in his far-shyer days was first known as Reginald Dwight.

I’m 17 and I’ve just driven back to school from The Wherehouse record store, an orange plastic bag around Elton’s newest release, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown-Dirt Cowboy.” My English teacher is helping me decode the hyperactive cartoon cover art on the sleeves, pointing out that the running clocks are most likely a reference to Dali. (I’ve got to check this Dali guy out!) I pour through the comic book included with the record (could Elton be more generous?!) that tells the origin story of how he met his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (they’re superheroes!) Drunk on constant replays of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”and “Writing”, I get into an argument with a classmate about which John is the greatest songwriter: Lennon or Elton? I fall passionately into the Captain’s camp.

Just graduated from high school, my friend Scott and I have come up with an unmissable idea: we offer to help homeowners mark the bicentennial by painting their address curb numbers with red, white and blue stenciling. Our go-to song on Scott’s El Camino radio as we turn down manicured streets is, of course, “Philadelphia Freedom.”

And yet maybe seven years later, when Elton John has a mini-comeback with “I’m Still Standing”, I’m at a bar and I stifle a yawn. I’m bored, maybe a little embarrassed, at what I perceive as the desperation of the video. Having proudly bought into punk and new-wave ethos, I perceived John’s music as remnants of a bloated seventies. I’ll still buy his records (in secret) and hope for a deep cut that I can grab on to (I recommend ‘I Am Your Robot’ and his tribute to Lennon, ‘Empty Garden’) but I become all too used to seeing his records in the used-section of my favorite Melrose Avenue vinyl haunts. And when I do, I just look the other way.

So the good news for other rock fans like me who got a little snooty for a while is that the new film “Rocketman” will make you remember why you (or I) fell in love with Elton John in the first place. It’s that origin-story comic book come to life, and for most of its length, “Rocketman” is delirious, euphoric fun.

And the good news for fans of classic musicals is that “Rocketman” is a genuine musical with singing and dancing, not a performative, concert-recreation musical like “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which the same director, Dexter Fletcher, also made. You’ve probably heard that story by now.) If no one has quite spoiled the surprise for you, when the film makes the leap into choreography and chorus, I can only say it comes just in time. Scenes of young Elton’s life in a drab circle of London council housing wouldn’t be out of place in an austere Terence Davies film. Though Fletcher lenses with an eye to stylized colors and symmetrical row houses (relying on the contrast between brown and aqua) Reginald Dwight’s liberation through music mirrors our own liberation in the film, smiling with pleasure that we will now hear Elton John songs as musical set-pieces.

The effect is to make you think that “Rocketman” first existed as a hit West End or Broadway jukebox musical, and this is the film version that expands on the original choreography and staging. You have to keep remembering that this time it will probably go in reverse; it’s easy to imagine the content of the film “Rocketman” transferring to the stage almost completely, though perhaps with a sequined piano descending from the ceiling.

The other reference that “Rocketman” may remind you of is Ken Russell’s film version of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy”, in which the real Elton John performed “Pinball Wizard.” His excesses were a good match for Russell’s extravagance, and if that director’s flamboyance ultimately got tiresome (who can forget Ann-Margret getting covered in canned beans?!) John, and Tina Turner as the “Acid Queen”, emerged memorably. “Rocketman” similarly gets mired down toward the end, not by being too much but by being not imaginative enough to fully redeem the familiar arc of a rock star who sails to the top but weighs himself down in mansions and dressing rooms with drugs and drink.

How can Taron Egerton match one of the most well-known and charismatic of all rock performers? By cannily under-playing when needed, yet stepping up to the Dodger stadium plate when he needs to show how a depressed rock star mustered that famous gap-toothed smile as the crowd roars and sequins demanded it. In close-ups (the film’s framing device is an imagined 12-step recovery meeting where John is giving his testimony) Egerton conveys John’s facial expressions and gestures in a way that is acutely pleasing and precise without ever devolving into mimicry.

Jamie Bell is equally enjoyable and poignant as John’s near-constant lyricist, Bernie Taupin. Their story together is both refreshingly nonchalant (apparently they’ve always worked well together, with few threatening storms) and a bit of a cliché when we go through the “I’ve got a crush on my straight friend” territory. And yet, from a fan’s viewpoint, it’s a peek inside their process that transcends gossip and fits the portrait of a young prodigy and genius of a composer who remained painfully immature in significant part due to his traumatic and stifling childhood, as well as his anxiety about his emerging sexual identity. (John was engaged to two women, married one, moved on to claim he was bisexual, then eventually fully came out as gay.) The complexity of Elton John’s career is that he and Taupin found each other by a simple stroke of luck yet parlayed that into a decades-long prolific partnership which produced songs encompassing a wide variety of historical and cultural subjects. (You could probably make several Broadway shows out of their oeuvre.)

A confused identity and vulnerability, well-played by Egerton, also made Elton John ripe for the picking by seasoned, sexy manager John Reid (in real life, Reid claims to have not so much discovered Elton John as agreeing to handle him after being pursued.) It’s a fair guess that Reid will recognize some of what is here, such as being Elton John’s first sexual experience (portrayed here with both brio and all-too-familiarly ‘discreet’ cutaways.) Played by Richard Madden, Reid is so full of Scottish swagger that he struts in in a manner that parts crowds; he’s a domineering fop and top. Though his antagonistic role as a manipulative enabler has only a few notes, Madden makes a feast of them and he’s well-matched to Egerton. Too bad we see so little breath or happiness from their five-year romance; instead the film focuses on their souring business relationship in order to set up John’s eventual steps towards independence. (By the way, if you haven’t seen Richard Madden in the political thriller series “Bodyguard”, do yourself a favor and take a night or two to watch it; Madden is exceptionally charismatic and carries the whole thing straight through to it’s suspenseful end.)

There may be skirmishes about how much of a queer sensibility “Rocketman” evidences; after he came out, and deeply affected by the decimation of the AIDS pandemic, John has been steadfastly plainspoken about his sexuality and seldom shirked an opportunity to embrace queer camp. (He sometimes out-costumed Cher.) The film is often exactly about that, implying that the degradation of society’s imperative to live in the ‘closet’ leads to the rot of the soul. A ‘deep cut’ fan could hope that the film would have covered not just the process leading to the public declaration of his sexuality (a familiar movie plot) but the various implications that followed in the panicked and homophobic 80s and 90s. To cite just the recent two rock biopics from director Fletcher: what did Elton John and Freddie Mercury have to say to each other? Still, dance numbers set to “Hercules” and “Honky Cat” are not not queer and you could say that Elton John’s total sensibility (he and his partners are producers) permeates every minute of “Rocketman”; after all, he sits in an addiction support group wearing orange tights and a feather headdress.

The familiar arc of musical fame triggering insecurity, masked by copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, becomes the eventual letdown of “Rocketman.” After a rousing “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” set in a hometown pub, it’s no fun seeing the character of Elton John follow Mercury, Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine, and basically anyone who’s ever been the focus of a VH1 “Behind the Music” episode into snorting cocaine off period furniture. It may be true, and it may give the film a traditional screenplay narrative ‘arc’, but it’s still no fun and by that I mean the film becomes less cinematically inventive and even gets claustrophobic. Just when “Rocketman” should become a fireworks finale of global trekking and artistic reinvention, it settles into a serious funk. Even the very ending, though it’s been called adventurous, is also an expected choice (disappointingly for me, it’s my least favorite Elton John song) and denies us that razzmatazz, everyone’s reunited and dancing-up-a-storm climax we’re set up to expect. The film is being celebrated for being daringly “warts-and-all” but you might want more dare, fewer warts.

But these are really just quibbles in what’s essentially a welcome surprise. “Rocketman” is joyfully exuberant and works best when it finds ways to simulate the excitement of when Elton John first played the famed club The Troubadour (complete with a funny and revealing cameo by Tate Donovan as owner Doug Weston.) As he escapes his opening night nerves and dexterously works the keyboard during “Crocodile Rock”, Egerton as John kicks his legs backwards into the air, just as the musician really did, and director Fletcher captures the crowd’s experience in a way that will surely resonate with any rock fan who has ever felt a powerful performer unexpectedly make their hearts take flight into the stratosphere. Mars may not be “the kind of place to raise your kids” but it’s a good place for music fans to land, and in the heady start of Elton John’s career, it was a planet full of feathered costumes, bejeweled goggles and echoing arpeggios, and it’s thrilling to see the launching here.

Walking out of “Rocketman”, 14 year old me is happy, and much-older me is happy too. I came home and wanted to dig out my “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Captain Fantastic”, even my “Blue Moves” albums. Hold them in my hands, examine the album covers, read through the lyrics about movie stars and princesses, kings and cowboys, and of finding redemption, no matter what age.

Sing.

Lift-off.

Film, Music, Peak TV, Diversity— Tom Cendejas is sitting on a sofa and unwrapping Pop Culture with a Latino eye, one husk at a time. tomcend@gmail.com

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