Taron Egerton in Rocketman (Photo: Paramount)
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Dexter Fletcher
STARS Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell
One of the most accurate memes to pop up post-Oscars stated (and I’m paraphrasing in parts), “Congrats to Ethan Hawke for winning Best Actor for First Reformed — wait, he wasn’t even nominated? OK, then congrats to Bradley Cooper for doing his own singing in A Star Is Born — oh, he didn’t win, either? Then congrats to Christian Bale for physically transforming himself in Vice — hold on, he also didn’t win? Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody? Rami seems like a nice guy, but you blew this one, Academy.”
That miscue — Malek was quite good as Queen frontsman Freddie Mercury, but that was not an Oscar-worthy turn — becomes even more pronounced with the release of Rocketman, a biopic about Elton John. As the legendary pop star, Taron Egerton is sensational … and he does his own singing, to boot (Malek mostly only did his own lip-syncing). It will be a shame if he’s passed over for Oscar consideration because of some silly “been there, done that” feelings on the part of voters.
It isn’t just Egerton who outshines the competition: Even if it doesn’t soar as high as one would like, Rocketman is still a better movie than Bohemian Rhapsody, which suffered in part from its PG-13 designation. Rocketman is a solid R, which is more in line for this sort of warts-and-all picture. As just one example, take the homosexuality of each film’s central figure. In an effort to squeeze every last dollar out of Middle America, Bohemian Rhapsody often tried to downplay Freddie’s fondness for the lads, with risible scenes that played like G-rated outtakes from William Friedkin’s notorious 1980 dud Cruising. This new movie is more honest with its protagonist’s sexual orientation, and while it isn’t quite Brokeback Rocketman, it doesn’t shy away from following Elton as he grapples with his longings and eventually enters into a relationship with John Reid, who managed both Elton and Queen. (Amusingly, Reid is portrayed here as a scumbag by Richard Madden while portrayed as an affable chap by Aidan Gillen in Bohemian Rhapsody.)
Rocketman cannily protects itself from the usual accusations of distorting history by unspooling as a musical fantasy. One scene presents Elton as a young boy (and still going by his real name of Reginald Dwight) suddenly busting out into song, treating a barroom full of people to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” Another finds him and writing partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) testing out material for music publisher Dick James (Stephen Graham) toward the start of their career in 1967, with one of the sampled tunes being “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (which of course wasn’t even created until 1983). This fanciful approach does more than allow the filmmakers greater freedom in bending facts — it also takes the movie out of the stodgy realm of the usual biopic focusing on the rise and fall and comeback of an enduring artist.
When it’s all over, Elton is still standing, and, thanks to its inventive approach and a dazzling performance by Egerton, so is the movie itself.