Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. It’s a well-worn cliché – straight from the toasty bin. But in case you need a refresher course, Rocketman -- Director Dexter Fletcher’s musical fantasy biopic based on the early life and career of Sir Elton John – will serve as a graphic illustration of everything that phrase exemplifies. This cinematic biography of Elton’s (then Reggie Dwight’s) early life from childhood to early stardom received executive producer Sir Elton’s own seal of approval, and it certainly does not shy away from graphic imagery and controversy. And, incidentally, the music is drop-dead gorgeous -- itself worth the admission price.
If you lived through the 70s, 80s, or 90s – or even if you didn’t – you’re most likely no stranger to the music of Elton John. But what you may not be as familiar with is the story behind the music. And in this case, it’s quite a story, but certainly not always a happy one. Brought up in a British family that can only be emphatically described as DISFUNCTIONAL!, young Reggie demonstrates a keen, even eerie musical proficiency, earning him, at age 11, a scholarship at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music. But Mozart and Schubert are not what captivates young Reggie, who responds much more enthusiastically to Elvis and early British rock and roll.
Starved of the love and approval of his distant father, misunderstood by his unhappy and distracted mother, the budding genius uses his rare talent to create his own fantasy. Is it possible that he had a sort of premonition that he would ultimately share that fantasy with the entire world as one of the most prominent and provocative rock stars of all time? I found myself asking this question as I watched the scenes of his remarkable development as a musician and entertainer unfold.
What sets this film apart from more conventional biopics is the use of Elton’s music itself. Not simply used as background, the music is as much a character as any of the principals themselves. The first time we encounter family members and neighborhood kids burst into song with little warning is admittedly a bit jarring. But its uniqueness is refreshing and seems to work especially well in the case of Elton’s down to earth, true-to-life lyrics.
Without spoiling the story and its ending, let’s just say that Elton’s sudden rise to the top of the rock world doesn’t come without a huge price tag – in this case, the emergence of alcohol and cocaine addiction, codependency, false friends, unrequited love, way too much money, and terrible life decisions. All of these ultimately combine to nearly destroy the larger-than-life legend. As a person who is no stranger to recovery, I would recommend this film to anyone who has any connection at all to a friend or family member battling addiction issues. Without being overly sentimental or “preachy,” and by allowing the audience to witness first-hand the disastrous consequences of a user’s choices, the film is remarkably realistic in its portrayal of how drugs and alcohol hijack a person’s (along with their loved one’s) entire reality. Ultimately, we get to witness how the “I’m Still Standing!” survivor manages, with the help and support of a community of fellow overcomers, to begin to piece together the shattered shards of his broken life.
Any member or friend of the LBGQT community will emphasize with the film’s authentic portrayal of the unique struggles faced by those perceived as fundamentally “different.” As a specific example, many of us have had the misadventure of falling for someone who, through no fault of their own, can never fully return those feelings of love and longing. I admit I shed a few tears during the scene in which Elton first plunks out “Your Song” while Bernie Taupin, his famous long-term lyricist (and straight crush!), stands silently nearby, a look of speechless wonderment on his face. The undercurrent of hopeless yearning struck close to home.
Overall, the principal cast members are excellent and convincing in their respective roles – but Taron Eagerton soars stratospherically above them all. By all rights he deserves an Oscar win for his unnervingly convincing portrayal (he even sings all of the songs!) of one of the most famous and enduring rock icons of all time.
Rick Libert is a contributor and co-host for A Blast from the Past. He can be found on the TweetyBox @rlibert.