Tuesday 11 June 2019

Movie Review: Rocketman (2019)

A musical biographical drama with fantasy elements, Rocketman captures Elton John's artistry and the gap between massive public acclaim and dark personal demons.

Dressed in an outlandish devil/angel combo performance outfit, Elton John (Taron Egerton) enters a treatment centre therapy group and admits to being an alcoholic and addicted to drugs, sex and shopping. In flashback Reggie Dwight's life story is revealed, starting with a childhood in England where he felt unloved by his cold father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and disinterested mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), but supported by grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones).

Reggie's talent on the piano grants him entry to the Royal Academy of Music, and he eventually backs-up touring artists from the US. He adopts the name Elton John and gradually accepts he is gay. A record company executive connects Elton with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and their music writing partnership leads to unimagined global success. John starts a romance with business manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but as the singer desperately searches for true love and personal fulfillment, he falls into a miserable life of empty excess.

On-stage flamboyance is a cloak to hide deep-seated insecurity, and untold riches, fame, fortune and debauchery are no replacement for true love. Such is the story Sir Elton John wants to tell, and he gets to shape his legacy as the film's executive producer. Written by Lee Hall and directed by Dexter Fletcher, Rocketman is a vivid biography using John's music in no particular sequence to underline his emotional state of mind at key milestones, and adding effective fantasy elements to convey the insanity of the pop star life.

Taron Egerton takes on both acting and singing duties, and is sparkling in both contexts. Fletcher keeps the songs short and in service of the plot, and the editing is rational and coherent, with some excellent long and fluid takes to capture the dynamism of the accompanying dancers and crowds.

In adopting the eternal search for love and belonging as a central theme, Hall does not hold back in conveying John's parents as a nightmare of uncomfortable incompatibility with a child's need for affection. And so Elton goes looking for partners of either sex to fill the gap in his soul. Taupin emerges as his spiritual brother and creative partner, while Reid is the passionate but manipulative devil-lover in a business suit offering false fondness.

Meanwhile Elton's vulnerability goes hiding behind increasingly extravagant outfits, the performer wowing the crowd on the outside as he privately sinks deeper into despair.

Once John performs his first Los Angeles show Rocketman zooms quickly through the artist's upward trajectory, and then spends a hefty portion of its two hours wallowing in the unhappy and filthy rich life consumed by the decadence of sex, drugs, and booze. Fletcher almost trips towards self-pitying drama, but Taupin's timely interventions in John's life always help move things along towards more promising outcomes.

Rocketman chronicles the quest for love on and off the stage, a journey where misery accompanied artistic triumph on a most tempestuous journey.

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