On September 8, 2018, Sir Elton Hercules John—born Reginald Kenneth Dwight—began the first leg of the five-leg farewell concert tour, his last lap around the world as a touring musician before retiring in 2021. John plans to play over 300 concerts for his Farwell Yellow Brick Road tour, and if ever there were a movie made to promote a tour, Rocketman would be it.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher—who stepped in and finished Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired—Rocketman is half musical fantasia, half standard-issue biopic, all Elton John propaganda. Spanning John’s life from cradle to the recording of “I’m Still Standing” in 1983, Fletcher and writer Lee Hall compose Rocketman from a grab bag of rock ‘n’ roll clichés, Behind the Music moments, made-for-TV hysterics, and childhood fixations that even Sigmund Freud would have found dubious.
Taron Egerton plays the musical savant full of facial ticks and costume changes. Sporadically haunted by his younger self (played by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor), John tries to bury his demons under an ocean of vodka and mountains of cocaine. His parents provide the genesis of his pain: Dad (Steven Mackintosh) never hugged him, and Mom (Bryce Dallas Howard) never wanted him. But the cocktail isn’t set until John meets Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), a songwriter in need of a singer. John is a singer in need of a songwriter, and the two hit it off over their shared love for “Streets of Laredo.” Suddenly, songs fall fully-formed from the sky. From Taupin quickly scribbling lyrics at the kitchen table to John easily pulling melodies from the piano. Orchestral music soars on the soundtrack, and the arduous task of creation is reduced to a moment of inspiration followed by a lifetime of unprecedented success and immense wealth.
Rocketman has about as much respect for the artistic process as it does for the myriad of psychological issues that form the basis of John’s many addictions: alcohol, cocaine, weed, sex, shopping, you name it. John—attracted to an unreciprocating Taupin—harbors a sizeable grudge toward his partner and drives Taupin into the background: Far enough so he doesn’t have to share the spotlight, but close enough should he need to call on his conscious.
Rocketman is an insulting movie. As it desperately gropes to some semblance of autobiography in the music, Fletcher and Hall completely ignore contributions made by John’s backing band, the hundreds of hours spent in recording studios, and the sheer labor that went into designing and pulling off an Elton John stage show.
“You write the words, I’ll handle the rest,” John tells Taupin.
For Fletcher and Hall, it was as simple as that: Taupin wrote the words, John did everything else. That everything else is why Rocketman exists and why the audience will come. And some of those musical interludes are just imaginative enough to make Rocketman seem like it’s going somewhere. But it’s not. It’s just headed toward the dark recesses of John’s mind, a place where all he wants to hear is love and validation. For some artists, the audience can’t clap long enough.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Written by Lee Hall
Produced by Adam Bohling, David Furnish, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh, Matthew Illesley, Kit Connor
Paramount Pictures, Rated R, Running time 121 minutes, Opens May 31, 2019