Movie Review: Rocketman (2019)
When I first became aware of the radio, of rock ‘n’ roll as a current thing, it was about 1973, I was 10, and Elton John reigned supreme. He was what the cool older kids of maybe 14 or 16 listened to. They had his albums with the odd titles: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” Except ... I’ve already screwed up the chronology, haven’t I? “Captain Fantastic” wasn’t released until 1975, which is when I became a regular radio listener, every Sunday night writing down the top 40 songs in the nation along with Casey Kasum like it mattered. Like I do with box office today. I did that for about a year.
So no, I guess I never really learned Elton’s discography or history—not like with the Beatles. I was a completist with the Beatles but as a kid I owned just one Elton album: “Elton John’s Greatest Hits.” I wanted to be the Beatles—or Paul—but never Elton. Feather boas and glitter and those crazy glasses? Who wears glasses? Nerds. Who wants to be a nerd?
It’s astonishing that he was ever a rock star, really. Rock stars were lithe, sexual beasts with long hair who went crazy on guitars and microphones and drums. Elton was a vaguely pudgy, balding dude in glasses and feather boa tinkling on piano keys. But there he was. Everywhere. Even—it was rumored—wearing 10-foot-tall platform shoes in the movie “Tommy.” Bigger kids saw “Tommy.”
There were rumors about Elton but not necessarily about that. “Bennie and the Jets” was about drugs, doofus, don’t you know anything? I also misheard the lyrics: “She’s got electric boobs/Her ma has, too.” Were there rumors of his sexuality? That wasn’t talked about much back then. It was just a playground insult, or something you might see on an episode of “Barney Miller.” Besides, how could he be gay? He was obviously obsessed with electric boobs.
The way he broke in the U.S. also had its own weird path. He didn’t get big in Britain and then ride that wave across the Atlantic. He didn’t keep playing bigger and bigger venues until he wowed us all on American TV. Instead, it was some club in LA. He started there.
Interesting thing about not knowing Elton’s chronology: “Rocketman” doesn’t know it, either. Or it doesn’t care about it. In fact, it doesn’t care more than I don’t know.
The movie is essentially a jukebox musical, a biopic told via music videos, so it uses what it wants when it wants. The first song he sings at The Troubadour, for example, is “Crocodile Rock,” which is like three years early. Worse, after that show, he meets superhunky John Reid (Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones”), there’ a flurry of headlines about Elton’s success, then he’s back in a London studio recording “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” with Kiki Dee. Reid shows up there, and they become lovers, and Reid becomes his manager, setting himself up to be the villain of the piece. But to me it was like: Wait, the Troubadour in 1970 was the beginning, and “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” in 1977 was near the end—Elton’s last big hit before the MTV-era comeback—so what about the rest? When he reigned supreme? I get jukebox musical; I get truncate as you need; but if you lose too much chronology, you lose the thread and the story.
I also don’t get why music biopics don’t ride the crest of the wave longer. That’s the fascinating part, but here it’s just dealt with in a flurry of headlines. He wows at the Troubadour and then he’s selling 4% of songs worldwide. Give me the steps in between. I’m sure tons of performers wowed at the Troubadour and were never heard from again.
And what do writer Lee Hall (“Billy Elliott,” “War Horse”) and director Dexter Fletcher (“Eddie the Eagle,” “Bohemian Rhapsody”) focus on instead? The dullest story there is: addiction. Booze, drugs, sex—anything to fill the void where love should be. (Cue: “I Want Love.”) The void is interesting, the addiction isn’t. It’s always a long slow fall, and the only question is if there’s a bottom.
Maybe all post-rock ‘n’ roll success is dull. Here’s what biopics tend to give us:
- Band tensions/breakups
“Rocketman” has all of it. Elton is addicted to drugs and booze, he’s overworked by John Reid, at one point he’s slapped by John Reid (which supposedly didn’t happen), and he and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) suffer tensions and break up. Success never looked so sucky.
You know the real disconnect? The movie is about Elton’s life as represented by his songs ... yet it’s Bernie who writes the lyrics. We see Bernie writing the lyrics. So how do Bernie’s lyrics correlate to Elton’s life? I guess I’m asking. Because sometimes they do. Look at “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Lyrics by Bernie but they describe a moment in 1968 when Elton tried to commit suicide because he felt trapped by his engagement to Linda Woodrow, whom he didn’t love, and by society’s expectations of who he was supposed to be. So he tried to asphyxiate himself in a gas oven. The “someone” who saved him is bandmate Long John Baldry, from whom Elton took his rock surname—the John Lennon bit in the movie is fiction. Meanwhile, the relationship with Woodrow in the movie is treated comically—clothes chucked out from a second-floor window as if he were a 1950s husband. You wouldn’t suspect he nearly killed himself because of her.
According to the movie, their songrwiting partnership went like this: Bernie wrote the lyrics independently, and Elton read them at the piano and, bam, came up with music on the spot. C’mon. Let’s dig into it. Who’s Daniel? Who was the young man in the 22nd row? Whose farm metaphor keeps popping up in every other song? Is “Rocket Man” a takeoff on Bowie’s “Space Oddity” or is it how Elton felt skyrocketing to fame, with the line “I’m not the man they think I am at home” an obvious allusion to his homosexuality? If so, how was this communicated to Bernie? I wanted more of that in the movie.
And do they really suggest the line is “I miss the earth so much/I miss my life?” To be PC? Watching, I felt a little like Alvy Singer. “You heard, right? It’s wife. I’m not crazy here.”
That said ...
I thought Taron Egerton fucking nailed it. New respect. “Robin Hood” is now forgiven. It’s a shame last year’s Oscar went to an actor playing a ’70s Brit pop star managed by John Reid and directed by Fletcher because there’s no way they’re going to go there two years in a row, yet Egerton is the more deserving. He sings, for one, and his transformation is more spot on. At times I wondered if they were showing us clips of the real Elton. Just look at that LA concert when he comes out in the glitter Dodger uniform—the way Egerton stands, poses, etc. Perfect.
You know who else I liked? Kit Connor, the preteen Elton who winds up at the Royal Academy of Music and then plays early rock ‘n’ roll at honky tonks with his swept-up red-haired pompadour. He was the first one to get to me. Maybe because he reminded me a bit of my nephew at that age. Or maybe that’s the age when true vulnerability shows.
New respect for Bryce Dallas Howard, too, playing his mom, Sheila. “Jurassic World: Forbidden Kingdom” is now forgiven. (Kidding. Nothing forgives it.) I couldn’t figure out who the actress was for the longest time. I assumed British; she’s that good. Howard should play disdainful more, too.
I’d still recommend the movie. If I was on “Sneak Previews,” my thumb would be a titch above 90 degrees. But I keep thinking of all they missed. The Beatles conquering America in 1964—meaning rock ‘n’ roll could travel westward, too: What impact did that have on a 16-year-old Elton? How about AIDS and the work he did there? Singing at Lady Di’s funeral and rewriting “Candle in the Wind” and turning it into the biggest single ever? The movie pretends that in the early 1980s Elton pushed away the baggage (addiction, Reid) and stormed back with “I’m Still Standing”; but rehab was in the early ’90s, Reid managed him until ’98, and “I’m Still Standing” only reached No. 12 on the U.S. charts. There’s a better story here.