Queer Classics: “Rocketman” (2019)

After watching Bohemian Rhapsody, I had reservations about going to see Rocketman. While I like Queen’s music, I don’t have the same investment in either them or Freddie Mercury as I do Elton John. I’ve been a diehard Elton fan for decades, and he’s one of the few artists that I have made an effort to see in concert as many times as I can. So, given how thoroughly meh Bohemian turned out to be (how a film about Queen can be so lacking in energy is truly strange), I went in to Rocketman with somewhat low expectations.

Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. Rocketman was everything I wanted and more.

The film begins with Elton John entering a rehabilitation facility. He then narrates his childhood and adolescence, his union with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his tumultuous affair with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), his heights of glory and the pits of despair.

As with any successful film, casting is everything, and Taren Egerton is an absolute gem in this film. Somehow, through the magic of makeup and his own style, he comes to embody Elton in a way that is, sometimes, truly startling. And, unlike in Bohemian Rhapsody, where Rami Malek was not doing much of the actual singing, here Egerton actually shows off his singing chops. Though he doesn’t have quite the high tenor (nor the falsetto) that was such a hallmark of Elton’s earlier career, he is a very fine singer in his own right, and he does manage to capture some of Elton’s stranger enunciations. There were times that I had begun to think that I was actually watching Elton himself, and if Egerton isn’t at least nominated for an Academy Award for this there is no justice in the world.

It is, in other words, Egerton’s film, though Jamie Bell also deserves honorable mention for his fine turn as Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin, and Richard Madden has a fine villainous (and sexy) turn as Elton’s manager/lover John Reid. Everyone else in the film is quite serviceable, though there’s not a great deal of subtlety in Bryce Dallas Howard’s characterization as Elton’s mother, even if she does the best with what the story gives her. Gemma Jones, however, is warm and lovely as Elton’s grandmother, and while she’s not onscreen very long, she makes it clear that she is one of the few sources of genuine stability and love in his life.

Rocketman doesn’t shy away from painting its subject in a very unflattering light. Indeed, as my friend remarked, it’s a little surprising how scathing it is in its depiction of Elton’s lower points, particularly his cruelty toward those in his life who really do seem to care for him. What’s more, it shows us just how far Elton had sunk into a pit of self-loathing by the time that he finally sought our rehabilitation, and how much the heights of success was matched by a depth of despair. This despair, of course, is made all the more wrenching because of Elton’s being forced to live so much of his life in the closet (at least, unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman emphasizes the importance of this fact, including showing a very steamy sex scene between Elton and John Reid).

For all of its darkness, however, Rocketman has many moments of the utopian joy that one frequently associates with the musical genre. I was particularly struck by the choreography and cinematography of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” which catches up you in Egerton’s enthusiastic performance and the myriad bodies moving with joy through his vocals. Indeed, the film makes it clear that Elton is truly one of those people for whom musical ability is truly a gift, and the many musical numbers, even the ones that occur at his darker moments, are exquisite listening.

Just as importantly, Rocketman highlights how important Elton’s relationship with Bernie Taupin was and remains, even after all of these years. There’s a certain irony about Elton’s oft-repeated claim that the two of them have never had an argument, as it seems that the only reason this is true is because Taupin refuses to engage with Elton’s vicious diatribes. I truly enjoyed seeing Jamie Bell in the role, as I often feel that he doesn’t get enough appreciation as an actor. There is an undeniable chemistry between Egerton and Bell that emerges at numerous points in the film, and it is clear that, for Elton at least, the affection was at first more than brotherly. As the years progress, their relationship deepens and matures, until they are at last brothers in all but blood, and their last scene together is immensely touching.

It’s a little bit funny, but it’s quite astonishing how easily many of Elton’s numbers fit so seamlessly into the narrative that the film constructs (even if their date of composition doesn’t necessarily line up with the film’s chronology). There’s a certain irony about this, however, for the film doesn’t actually use any of the songs from John’s and Taupin’s autobiographical album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. I suspect this is because so many of them are explicitly about his life with Bernie, and it might have felt a bit trite to have song and narrative line up so neatly. However, I was a little sad not to hear Egerton perform “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (though I was pleased to see the film make use of some of Elton’s deeper cuts).

All in all, I really enjoyed Rocketman. I consider myself an Elton John fan, and to see his early life brought to such astounding life on screen is uniquely pleasurable. One gets the impression that, for Elton at least, this was a deeply personal film, and while I don’t know just how much input he had in its creation, it feels as if Rocketman comes from the heart. Full of emotion, good storytelling, and infectious music, Rocketman is a moving testament to the extraordinary life of one of the greatest musicians of all time.

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