by David Sigler
Special for TMW
I wanted an honest “Rocketman” movie review from an Elton John superfan and I knew radio DJ David Sigler would be the perfect choice. He would not disappoint. David, of course contributed to my “The Elton John Scrapbook”, (both original and revised editions). You can read more about his work at Two Rooms , a site which celebrates the works of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. —M.A. Cassata
***** (four out of five stars)
Billed as a movie musical fantasy, Rocketman is about one of the premiere rock stars of our time. Rocketman takes us on Elton John’s wild and crazy journey from his humble childhood to super stardom. What happens in between, particularly after 1975, is the relatively satisfying tale of overcoming addictions and the reconciliation with one’s troubled past. But it’s not an easy flight.
Rocketman begins by telling the story of how a young, unassuming musician named Reg Dwight has an incredible flair for melody via his trusty piano. He subsequently changes his name to Elton John, and becomes one of the biggest rock stars of all time. Portrayed wonderfully by Taron Egerton in a likely Oscar nominated performance. Elton gets drawn into the all too familiar destructive path of sex, drugs (cocaine primarily) and alcohol that eventually take a hold of both his body and spirit with several near death experiences. Thankfully, Elton (finally!) gets cleaned up and Rocketman uses effective flashback sequences via therapy sessions to tell the stories behind the highs and lows. In a rather funny opening scene, Elton storms into rehab dressed as the devil as the other participants stare at him. Elton proclaims, “I’m Elton John” as if the feathers and glasses didn’t give it away!
Rocketman takes us into therapy with Elton as he reflects on his troubled childhood. The movie intersperses his songs to project the appropriate sentiments the actors are feeling regardless of when the song was actually written. For example, in an early childhood scene with Elton’s mother, father, and grandmother, the song I Want Love from 2001’s album Songs From The West Coast is amazingly fitting because each person sings a line from the song that seems to capture how they feel at the moment (think Moulin Rouge). In a traditional musical, the protagonist would just sing the song alone but Rocketman goes out of its way to continually remind you that this isn’t going to be a standard chronological bio movie. Most of the songs are given the big Broadway treatment as well: choreographed dancers, backup singers, and Elton front and center singing without his piano in front of him most of the time. The producers don’t have us fooled though – this is tailor made for a Great White Way debut.
Things change however by a chance meeting with a budding lyricist from the English countryside named Bernie Taupin (played beautifully by Jamie Bell), and he becomes the catalyst needed to get stardom rolling for Elton: City boy Elton tells his music publisher that he can write music but not words; and Taupin’s awaiting lyrics need melodies. A match made in heaven, and perhaps this is the movie’s strongest and most enjoyable aspect. Taupin also becomes the brother Elton never had and his closest and most loyal confidant. It’s this relationship that holds the movie together and it’s interesting to see just how many of Taupin’s lyrics apply directly to Elton’s situations. That is the work of a great lyricist. The ability to write lyrics that anyone can relate to versus being too tied down to the originator’s personal experiences.
The scenes that showcase how Elton creates melodies around Taupin’s lyrics is a fascinating part of the movie because it’s that creative genius that helps justify some of Elton’s other less appealing traits: anger management, impulsiveness, and self pity. Most geniuses suffer for their art in some way, of course, and building melodies around lyrics is Elton’s shelter from the storm. For instance, he describes to Taupin how, once he starts reading the words, the melodies formulate in his head faster than he can keep up. Working out an early composition, Border Song, at first has Elton alone at the piano, but then the scene turns into a complete fantasy dream sequence whereas young Elton conducts a full orchestra in his mind as they play the tune he just created. Rock me Amadeus, indeed!
Another stand out songwriting scene is the classic ballad, Your Song in which at breakfast, Taupin hands Elton the lyric sheet and Elton seems absorbed immediately by the words. He runs to the piano. We then get an insider’s peek into Elton’s brain as he works out the song as Taupin, Sheila (Elton’s mother played coldly by Bryce Dallas Howard) and Ivy (Elton’s very supportive grandmother, played wonderfully by Gemma Jones), look on and realize that there is something very special developing between this songwriting duo. The scene then transforms into Elton in the studio recording the song with full tilt orchestra in tow. It’s an amazing transition.
However, the movie skimps on how long it took Elton and Taupin to fine tune their craft with the guidance of music publisher, Dick James (played by Stephen Graham). James was also the Beatles music publisher, so he knew a thing or two about discovering talent. James invested three long years in Elton and Taupin and while he was not getting his return on his investment, he still had faith in their abilities. In Rocketman, James is portrayed entirely too harshly yet without his belief in their craft and huge financial backing, Elton likely would not have made it. One jarring scene features James asking Elton how he came up with his stage name. This superfluous scene shows Elton looking at a picture of The Beatles hanging in Jame’s office, and a spotlight focuses on John Lennon. Elton says his last name was taken from Lennon’s first name. This scene could have been played for laughs with a wink to the viewer, but no. The reality is Elton borrowed the first names of two members of his band at the time. I don’t mind taking some creative artistic licenses to embellish a story line here or there, but this is one of many examples of how Rocketman blurs the lines between fact and fiction. It’s the equivalent of using crayons when a fine tipped paint brush would do.
Then it’s off to Los Angeles for Elton’s big debut at Doug Weston’s Troubadour Club (financed by Dick James). This scene, again, takes a few liberties and has Elton singing Crocodile Rock (which hadn’t been written yet but never mind), which is one of his biggest and well known hits. Perhaps the movie makers thought a fun sing along was in order to convince us Elton “won them over immediately” when the fact is, he won them over with an electrifying performance with still relatively unknown songs. But here is where Taron really shines portraying Elton. He fully emerges himself in the concert scenes. It’s also noteworthy that Taron does not lip sync, so that adds a nice touch of authenticity to his performance. Another big musical highlight of the film is the recreation of Elton’s 1975 Dodger Stadium performance in Los Angeles, and here, Taron nails Elton performing Pinball Wizard. It’s a virtual kaleidoscope of Elton changing costumes from his most flamboyant era as he belts out the show-stopping classic. This scene alone causes one to understand why Elton was so big during this time.
But one characteristic that was missing was the display of one of Elton’s best qualities: the ability to laugh at himself. Elton knew he didn’t have the swagger of Mick Jagger or sex appeal of Rod Stewart. The outlandish costumes were a result of needing to be different and to stand out from other rock stars at the time. He was living out his teenage years during his early 20’s. The more ridiculous the costumes got, the more his fans loved it because they knew he wasn’t taking all of this seriously but took his music seriously for sure. As Taupin says at one point, you don’t need the feathers and big glasses, but the reality was that Elton John, the performer, did. He didn’t look like a rock star without all the trappings. Underneath it, he was still just plain Reg Dwight.
Despite the music and Elton’s stage persona, relationships are what really fuel Rocketman’s plot, and Elton John sure had a tough time with a lot of them, sans Taupin. As success becomes overwhelming, Elton’s self-destructive addictions becoming overbearing. This is where the movie starts to lose steam as context seems to be thrown out the window. For instance, the portrayals of Elton’s relationship with his biological parents: Was Elton’s dad, Stanley (played sternly by Steven Mackintosh) really that emotionless and cold? Was Sheila that aloof to her son’s success? If viewer’s left thinking dad was ice water, then mom was ice cubes. Past interviews over the years tell a little more supportive story from both sides. Elton’s stepfather, Fred, or affectionately known by Elton as “Derf” played by Tom Bennett, was a huge supporter of Elton’s early career but that is hardly evident here. Other people in Elton’s life don’t fare too well either, especially Elton’s manager and then lover, John Reid (played by Richard Madden). Reid is portrayed as a ruthless and heartless driving businessman who is sucking the life out of his superstar at any cost and basically pushes Dick James out of the way. Reid tells Elton, who is having one coke binge after another that “long after you (Elton) kill yourself, I’ll still get my 20%”. Ouch! But without Reid’s savvy business acumen, would Elton have been so successful and frankly, rich? And why did Elton keep him on as his manager until 1998?
So, it’s no wonder then that Elton’s multiple emotional troubles continued to multiply, and even Taupin tries to encourage Elton to stop, slow down, and perhaps just get away from it for a while. Taupin decides to take a break, but Elton will have nothing of it. He’s too far gone at this point. A song from Elton’s rather dire period in the late 1970’s, the disco influenced, Victim of Love, is used as a subtle reminder of just how far Elton fell artistically. As Elton listens to the playback in the recording studio, a female recording engineer named Renate Blauel, catches his eye. They both begin to sing some lines from Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me. Another good example of Taupin’s lyrics filling in for dialogue and capturing the moment. However, the next scene shows Elton and Renate suddenly getting married with not even one raised eyebrow from anyone. Reid, and Taupin and others look on admirably as the bride and groom cross the threshold in a church in Australia. What drove Elton to marry her? Why her? Here’s another example of a scene without enough context to help explain the “why.” The “happy” couple then exits from two separate bedrooms in Elton’s house and have breakfast. Elton has an OJ and Vodka (with very little OJ) while Renate sadly looks at him drinking it while he downs it in nearly one gulp. Elton looks at her and says “I’m sorry.” She replies, “I know.” It’s a touching scene full of regret on both sides, but I wanted to know more. How much did Renate try to help Elton? She seemed like a lovely person and I suspect she got trapped in between his never ending lines of cocaine. “Sorry” definitely does seem to be the hardest word.
At this point, you can start to feel the tide turning to get Elton out of this rut. The eventual conclusion is of a man who finally is going to come to terms with his past demons from those who have caused him the most pain. I won’t spoil the final scene of Elton leaving rehab, but there is a sort of Good Will Hunting breakthrough. It’s quite touching.
Fittingly, Taupin has the last word or should I say words, as he gives Elton one more batch of lyrics while they are on a park bench outside of Elton’s room at the rehab center. It’s time for one last and final big production number as Taron is transplanted into the original Elton classic video, I’m Still Standing from 1983. Again, timelines don’t match up but whatever. It’s a joyous ending and captures the spirit of Elton’s survivalist moxie.
Elton once described his first five years of fame from 1970-1975 as his ‘five years of fun.’ But Rocketman, which mainly focuses on the 15 years that followed, seems to imply that none of it was fun but rather just one pain point after another that he couldn’t escape. While success did take its toll, no doubt, the movie didn’t dig deep enough as to why he was so successful. (Short- changed were references to his incredible musical milestones and not a word about any albums or monster hit singles that defined his greatness.)
As a musical fantasy, Rocketman is very entertaining (Honky Cat and Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting are a hoot!) But the movie plays a little too fast and loose with the facts in some key biographical areas for my tastes. You can make history young again as one of Elton’s songs go, but it shouldn’t be rewritten to fulfill a false narrative.