Seven months ago, the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody opened up to mixed reviews. While critics praised Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury and the Live Aid show that closes the film, they were also critical of just about everything else in the movie. The negative press, however, didn’t keep audiences from letting it gross over $900 million. The movie even inspired me to write an article on this site defending some of its criticisms.
Rocketman, the latest in what may be a long line of music biopics, is in every regard better than Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a shame that people will compare the two only because one came out before the other. The Elton John movie is really a “warts and all” biopic that doesn’t shy away from his demons or try to sanitize his lifestyle.
Rocketman opens with Elton attending a rehab meeting. When he shows up, he’s in a very flamboyant devil costume. The movie gets interrupted every now and then by lavish musical numbers, but are still able to tell a story. In the beginning, he flashes back to when he was kid and went by the name of Reginald Dwight, all while singing “The Bitch is Back”. His life growing up wasn’t as glamorous as his stage persona. He becomes very talented at piano and gets a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.
Our introduction to Taron Egerton is through a pub performance of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” which moves from the pub to a carnival scene. Egerton is excellent as Elton John – he has a lot of the showman’s charisma that more than makes up for the singing being a little off. During his rise, he meets Bernie Taupin, a songwriter played by Jamie Bell. Together with Taupin’s lyrics and John’s musicianship, they get their first big gig at the Troubadour in Los Angeles.
At this point, the movie hits a cliche that most music biopics, including Bohemian Rhapsody, seem to be unable to avoid; the manipulative music manager/executive. In this movie, the manager’s name is John Reid. The two hit it off instantly as both business partners and lovers. While the character is one dimensional, Richard Madden plays him well. Their relationship begins Elton’s spiral to a life of debauchery, set to the tune of “Honky Cat”.
Reid also pressures Elton to come out to his parents so that they don’t have to hide his sex life from the press. He’s unable to come out to his neglectful father who is now only paying attention to him because he’s famous. His mother, on the other hand, knew that Elton was gay, and warns him that he’s choosing a life of being alone forever. This sends him further down the spiral and into drug and alcohol addiction.
These moments of self destructive behavior can be hard to watch, but they’re essential to the movie. Elton John didn’t live a PG-13 life. His life was rated R (and in some places NC-17). Director Dexter Fletcher (who helped finish Bohemian Rhapsody following Bryan Singer’s firing) brings Elton’s story to life through colorful musical numbers and a captivating story about battling inner demons. Bernie Taupin shows up towards the end to make amends with Elton and gives him a song to put music to. The song would become the movie’s closing number, fittingly called “I’m Still Standing”.
Rocketman‘s comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody are inevitable, but everyone should seek this movie out. It’s a lot of fun and has emotion at its core. Fans of Elton John may not only learn something new about the man, but they also get a movie that’s a perfect fit for its subject matter. I feel bad for whatever the next big music biopic is, because this is a hard act to follow.
Rocketman is now in theaters worldwide.