Last year, I heard a familiar refrain for months as former Weekend Editor Steve Wildsmith asked me each week if I’d seen “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Each week, I told him “No,” as I offered up the films I had seen instead. I had no interest. I’m not a Queen fan, and I thought the film looked blah. In fact, I only saw the film four months after its initial release, because I had no other options. Surprisingly, I ended up loving the film. I even rooted for Rami Malek to win the Oscar for best actor. He did.
No one needed to convince me to see “Rocketman,” though. When I first saw the trailer, I knew I had found MY “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and each trailer just got me more amped up. Part of it was that I’m a bit of a Taron Egerton fan, who was absolutely adorable in the “Kingsman” franchise. Colin Firth was, too, so I’m not a complete cougar. I even saw 2018’s “Robin Hood,” which was pretty bloody awful. (My headline was “This ‘Hood’ is one best avoided,” if that tells you anything.)
I’ve seen a lot of reviews trying to compare “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman.” I even started this review doing the same. In doing so, I did both films an injustice, as are all the other reviewers trying to make the comparison. While both films tell the story of music legends, they are very, very uniquely defined.
“Rocketman” is the biographical story of Elton John’s rise to fame, and the people that surrounded him as he got there. The film actually goes through three iterations of Elton — or Reginald Dwight, as he was originally known — young Elton (Matthew Illesley), tween Elton (Kit Connor) and Egerton, who plays Elton from a 20-something through his 50s. Each of them gets their own shot at singing a classic, but we won’t talk about the littlest Elton’s high notes. Actually, everyone gets a chance to sing in “Rocketman,” even those you wouldn’t expect.
Elton’s story isn’t a happy one. He was raised by a mother who resented him: Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard). His father, Stanley (Steven Macintosh), didn’t even care if he existed. He left when Elton was just a kid. He pretended he didn’t have a kid when he was around, and the lack of acknowledgement just increased after he left. (Or maybe it was stagnant. After all, even those who are present can be absent, right? You know it’s true.)
Love is a concept Elton struggled with. His grandmother, Ivy (Gemma Jones), seemed to be the only one who cared about his feelings or passions. When his music teacher suggested he was a skilled-enough piano player to land a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, it was Ivy who took him to the audition. As he sat on his bed and cried as his father walked away, she was at his side offering comfort. She was the only steadfast person who offered encouragement when he was growing up.
Things didn’t really get better as he got older. It’s hard being a gay man in a world that’s not exactly comfortable with the idea, as a lot of people know.
As seen in this synopsis, “Rocketman” is a classic rock biopic in that it follows the standard narrative arc: meteoric rise to fame, excess, disaster and resurgence. It’s nothing new in that respect, but the manner in which it shows us those elements is unique. The film has been billed as a “musical fantasy,” and that is an apt descriptor because its musical numbers share more vocabulary with Hollywood musicals than biopics like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Ray” or “Walk the Line.” These musical numbers give us an entrance point into big moments in the musician’s life, help us to better comprehend how he felt and understand why he makes the choices he does. It’s an interesting technique, one that pays off more than you’d think.
“Rocketman” is a heartbreaking movie with just enough fluff and fun not to be too heavy, There are enough moments of levity that keep you from completely losing yourself in the sadness of his story. Take his friendship with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). They love each other, but only one wants to kiss the other’s face. (For the record, I went into the film thinking Bernie and Elton were the loves of each other’s lives, so I was a little distraught to realize Bernie was straight.)
Then there’s John Reid (Richard Madden), the manager who not only skyrocketed Elton to fame but also plummeted him to the ground by introducing Elton to a world of drugs, alcohol and a world of heartbreak, otherwise known as being a cheating scumbag. It’s a film that both hurts and lifts you up, which is essentially the story of Elton John’s life.
Bottom line: “Rocketman” is a good recipe that blends the savory and sweet elements in a unique way, one that stays with you long after your last bite.