If I had to wager a guess as to how enduring Taron Egerton’s portrayal of Elton John in the new biopic “Rocketman” will resonate with viewers, I’d have to say, “I think it’s gonna be a long, long time.”
The British actor had his work cut out for him, bringing the early career and lavish lifestyle of the over-the-top rock star to the big screen — not only visually, but vocally as well.
Plucked to portray John on the strength of his performances in the animated musical “Sing,” where he belted out a highly contagious rendition of “I’m Still Standing,” and 2017’s “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (in which John also appeared), Egerton takes to the title role in “Rocketman” like an E.J. melody taps into a Bernie Taupin lyric.
While other actors had been considered for the lead role as the project had been in development for years, Egerton certainly proved there were not plenty like him to be found as he earnestly delivered on the vocals to songs that have been in the public consciousness for nearly five decades.
He also nailed the part visually, especially when donning apparel and stage costumes that so perfectly matched what John wore during that period. (Be sure to check out the end credits to see what I mean. There’s an enlightening montage featuring side-by-side photos from the movie matched up with their real-life counterparts from John’s past showing an extreme attention to detail when it came to costuming.)
It’s inevitable that “Rocketman” will draw comparisons with late 2018 release “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Queen biopic which won four Oscars, including one for lead actor Rami Malek, who brought vocalist Freddie Mercury back to life in brilliant fashion. The two films do have some commonalities, from sharing director Dexter Fletcher down to intriguing portrayals of John Reid, who managed both John and Queen during an overlap of several years in the mid-1970s. But the films prove to be vastly different vehicles in their approach as they take fans on a turbulent trip through some of the same time period.
“You can be anything you want,” Reid tells John upon striking up a partnership with the singer — both in the boardroom and bedroom — in “Rocketman.” “You can be anyone you want, and it’s going to be a wild ride.”
“Rocketman” opens with John — dressed in a garish orange devil costume with wings — making a grand entrance to a hallway leading not to a concert stage, but to a rehab support group, where he declares that he is addicted to booze, cocaine, sex and ... shopping. The support group setting becomes the jumping off point throughout for many of the scenes as John’s life is presented, as it were, to the circle of semi-stunned onlookers in a series of flashbacks.
Where “Bohemian Rhapsody” unfolded as a drama, “Rocketman” diverges as a musical fantasy, which when you think about it, fits John’s career and persona perfectly. There are a handful of elaborate group song and dance routines, with the lyrical content propelling the narrative. “The Bitch is Back,” for example, features a saucy 5-year-old Elton, family and neighbors dancing in the streets outside his home — based off the song’s opening line, “I was justified, when I was 5.” Soon thereafter, a teenage Elton playing piano in a pub launches into a theatrical presentation of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”
The energy of the songs combined with the touch of fantasy certainly added some diversion from what was an intriguing, but often dark and depressing story. The more successful on-stage Elton became, the more the life of offstage Elton spiraled out of control.
Especially compelling were earlier scenes depicting the serendipity of John, a piano player who couldn’t pen lyrics, partnering up with Taupin, a poet who didn’t write music. Their partnership, which has lasted some 50 years, is really the heart and soul of the movie. Taupin, played brilliantly by Jamie Bell, is often the one grounding influence in John’s life and seemingly the only person who understands his inner turmoil, conflict and true personality.
“We became inseparable” John tells his support group of Taupin, “like a brother I never had.”
It’s a telling line because it becomes obvious that John’s later excess and decadence stems from a deep-seated neglect and self-loathing instilled in his childhood by parents who not only didn’t love each other but often viewed their only son as a nuisance or non-entity altogether.
Barbed lines are delivered by both parents, not only to each other, but also to Elton at various stages of his life. Based on their portrayals in the movie, it’s hard to say which parent posed the greater detriment — the father (Steven Mackintosh) who ignored then abandoned him or the mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) who constantly ran him down but still wanted him to pay for her lifestyle.
And then there’s Reid (Richard Madden from “Game of Thrones”) who evolves from lover to the previously sexually confused John, to live-in partner and manager, and then finally to greedy villain and callous antagonist.
“I’ll still be collecting my 20% long after you’ve killed yourself,” Reid says when John tries to end their partnership at one point.
A key segment of the film depicts John’s suicide attempt in October of 1975, where he ingested a handful of Valium and jumped in his swimming pool, only to be pulled out by others at the house. Two days later, he performed the first of two soldout shows at Dodger Stadium. I was in attendance at the second of those shows — my first concert — and it’s an amazing thing to contemplate just how John was able to keep his two lives so completely separate. I’m still not sure how one goes from suicide attempt to pumping a lifetime of memories into the 110,000 fans in attendance during two days of exhilarating showmanship in such a short span of time.
A special shoutout also goes to Tate Donovan, who was a complete scene stealer as flamboyant Troubadour owner Doug Weston.
The film hits its poignancy peak late in the group counseling session, when John mentally confronts each one of the key players in his life. It’s an emotional badge of honor and represents a key turning point in how he’s lived his life from that time period forward.
“Rocketman” gets many things right — for example, I loved the brief reference by Taupin to an egg stain on his original handwritten lyrics to “Your Song,” which is true.
Several other things are inaccurate, waved away under the creative license banner. For example, John didn’t take his last name from John Lennon, as the movie suggests (he got it from fellow musician Long John Baldry). Also, his band for his landmark Troubadour shows in Los Angeles were not comprised of unknown local musicians pulled together at the last minute — they were his actual band he brought from England. And the whole abandoning a gig at Madison Square Garden to escape to rehab — yeah, that didn’t happen either.
I’ve often maintained that unless you lived through the early to mid-1970s, you can’t quite fathom just how big a phenomenon Elton John was during that time. Thanks to Egerton and “Rocketman,” you can get a pretty good idea.
“Maybe I should have tried to be more ordinary,” John’s character says at one point in the film. Thank goodness “Rocketman” took the complete opposite approach.