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New film: Rocketman

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Directed by Dexter Fletcher

“Rocketman” is the film that “Bohemian Rhapsody” wasn’t, despite the great acclaim it received. Where ”Bohemian Rhapsody” was an enjoyable, sanitized, and entirely conventional biopic about the life and career of Freddie Mercury, “Rocketman” is, by comparison, neither as sanitized or conventional, and is altogether more enjoyable as a result as it recounts the early life and career of Elton John.

At least it’s not conventional in movie screenplay terms. It’s somewhat more conventional when you realize it’s a full blown biographical musical, set to the music of John and his long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin. The songs aren’t used as milestones or interludes, they’re woven throughout the film in a sequence that doesn’t relate to their chronology but rather the suitability of the lyrics to the point of the story as it’s being told.

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This takes a little getting used to at first, as does the style, as it means that songs co-written by John and Taupin are helping drive parts of the story before they even met, and before Reginald Dwight even took the name Elton John. The narrative arc of the biography is driven and punctuated by a scene in which John is in group therapy, in rehab, and the movie starts this way with the initial flashbacks and recollections seeming a little clunky – and the first ten minutes or so are borderline off-putting – until the film really gets into it stride and, perhaps, we the audience get into ours.

But once Taron Egerton, already seen in therapy, takes over as the adult John in the flashback sequences as well, the film is unstoppable. Where “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a series of carefully staged lip-syncing exercises, the cast of “Rocketman” were allowed to run with their own interpretations and performances and so the music is both familiar and novel at the same time, which is difficult to achieve and wonderful to behold. Egerton fills John’s jumpsuits, boots, glasses, and vocals to great effect and Jamie Bell is equally well cast as the relatively quiet Taupin, rarely far away and yet occasionally distant.

There’s a generosity of spirit at play here, as John allowed his life and his music to be recreated, warts and all, where it might have been easier to hold the reins a little tighter, as it seems the surviving members of Queen did with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But there’s also some significant small-worldiness, and presumably trustworthiness, at play also. Dexter Fletcher, who started out in the 1976 musical “Bugsy Malone,” was a credited producer but also the uncredited second director who stepped in to finish “Bohemian Rhapsody” after the departure of credited director Bryan Singer. Egerton and John have worked together before in the second “Kingsman” movie – and they reportedly spent months together as Egerton prepared for this role (and they have duetted together since). Bell began his career in “Billy Elliot” which was later set to music for the stage by John, with the original screenplay, the musical book, and the screenplay for “Rocketman” all written by Lee Hall – and all have known each other for years.

The end result is pretty special – feeling a little like a film that was made into a musical and back into a film, all at once. But it’s also disconcerting at times, as we’re reminded that yet another of our larger than life heroes was painfully unhappy throughout the period that many of us watched him and imagined (the far happier version of) that life. But it’s also remarkable, given less fortunate outcomes for so many others, that Elton John brought himself back down to earth, or at least a little closer to it, and reinvented his career and personal life so successfully. It’s a pleasure to end a movie like this with reminders of later successes rather than an onscreen obituary.

It’s hard to predict how this will fare come award season, which seems so far away. And it may be that it has a rough time after what many may think of as a similar film and performance in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and that film’s awards successes. But “Rocketman” is better in all those contexts, whether or not the timing favors it. That aside, it’s well worth the time now.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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