Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Despite the box office and Oscar success of Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018, the musician biopic formula has begun to feel stale. Young musician finds success, gets distracted by sex, drugs, and what have you, falls to the deepest of depths, and then seeks redemption. The formula is so commonplace that it was already being parodied as far back as 2007 with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and yet the movies still keep rolling it out. We put up with it, mostly because we enjoy revisiting some of our favorite music blared through cinema speakers, but the genre could use a storytelling jolt. Enter Rocketman, the Elton John biopic that does something few others in the genre have tried: take the music beyond the stage and recording studio, turning the musician biopic into a fully-fledged song-and-dance musical.
We know we are in for something completely different almost immediately. The story is framed with a 30-something Elton in rehab, reflecting back on his life to this point and the choices that led him from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. This is hardly original, but then Elton follows his childhood self—then named Reginald Dwight—out into the suburban streets of 1950s England where the entire neighborhood breaks out into a performance of “The Bitch is Back,” leading up to the introduction of young Reggie’s mother Sheila. Not only is the number fun, but it succeeds in assuring us that the movie we are about to watch may follow the typical formula, but it is not going to do so conventionally.
Throughout its runtime, Rocketman will continue to stage musical numbers set to many of Sir Elton’s most famous songs, each underlying what is happening in the story at that point. Some are loud, fun, and fast—“Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”—others are performed more like ballads—“Tiny Dancer.” And the movie doesn’t exclusively give these songs to Elton. At a difficult point in their relationship, songwriter and friend Bernie Taupin walks away from Elton and sings a melancholy version of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” At another point, “I Want Love” is a medley performed by young Reggie, his parents, and his grandmother, as they struggle to communicate what they need from each other.
“I Want Love” is a song that was not released until 2001, but in this film, it is performed in the 1950s. By using the songs to tell the story instead of telling the story of the songs, Rocketman throws chronological order out the window, further freeing its storytelling from the constraints that usually haunt the genre. The movie unspools the rise, fall, and redemption of Sir Elton through the use of “Your Song,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and “Crocodile Rock,” building right up to the centerpiece that is the performance of the titular song, not caring at all about the order in which these songs were actually released—something it can only do because of the format it established early on.
Taking the songs out of the studio and down off the stage into the streets also allows the movie to get away with the fact that Taron Egerton, as good as he is in the role, is not necessarily a perfect sound-alike for Sir Elton. But by not trying to recreate specific historical performances—with rare exception—Rocketman does not force the audience to instinctively draw comparisons.
This isn’t even the first time that Egerton has performed an Elton John song in a movie, having voiced the soulful gorilla in the 2016 animated film Sing who performed “I’m Still Standing,” a number that is also featured prominently in this movie. Egerton, working again with his Eddie the Eagle director Dexter Fletcher, is terrific in the role. He may not sound exactly like him, but he embodies the famous musician as well as could be imagined. He brings the energy needed to portray Elton at his flamboyant heights and his eyes carry the weight needed for Elton’s more challenging encounters, such as a few heartbreaking ones with his parents. And, perhaps most importantly, he can pull off all of those outlandish costumes.
The supporting cast is also terrific, most notably Jamie Bell as Elton’s longtime friend and writing partner Bernie Taupin, and Bryce Dallas Howard as his mother Sheila. I also liked Tate Donovan in the small role of Doug Weston, the owner of The Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles. Then there is Richard Madden as John Reid, the real-life manager who also appeared in Bohemian Rhapsody (played by Madden’s former Game of Thrones co-star Aidan Gillen). Between Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, all released within eight months of each other, Hollywood is clearly making an effort to label musician managers as the most villainous characters in the entertainment industry.
By changing up the way in which the story is told, Rocketman breathes some new life into the musician biopic genre, even while essentially telling the same old story with different music. The bottom line is that it is an incredibly fun movie to watch and works as more than just a visual album. It will leave you not only wanting to download an Elton John greatest hits album when you get home from the theater, but also likely leave you wanting to revisit the performances and the musical numbers in the movie itself.
Rocketman opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.