On October 12, 1986 we saw Elton John at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, a mere five miles from the legendary Troubadour music venue where he exploded onto the scene on August 25, 1970. By this time, his greatest hits, those from his classic period between 1970 and 1976 were all part of the set list. It’s one of those shows you pull out of your portfolio when comparing concerts with friends. Yeah, I saw Elton John in L.A.
And that said, I don’t consider myself a huge fan, although the song Rocketman is one of my all time favorites. I think we have a greatest hits cassette somewhere, but the Elton John I experienced when I was coming of age in the early 70s was as an inescapable, integral fabric in the soundtrack tapestry that soothed our journey from the late 60s into a fabulous and turbulent decade.
His songs evoke that “where were you when you first heard…” visceral reaction. He was always on the radio (remember radio?) with a range of tunes that spanned from the beautiful Your Song to the raucous Crocodile Rock. Pick your mood, he and lyricist Bernie Taupin captured raw emotion in music and words. I was washing windows at my first job when the haunting, synthesized strains embedded in the song Rocketman, like fuel expending on ascent, sealed an association within me of flashback proportions. That the song was inspired by the amazing science fiction writer Ray Bradbury of suburban Waukegan Illinois, for me lays another piece of rebar in the concrete of this musical creation. It also harkens back to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, another of my favorites.
But this is not a music review, so now lets talk about the film that attempts to capture this amazing life and talent.
Like so many other rock ‘n roll biopics, most recently Bohemian Rhapsody, Elton John’s life seems to have followed a script: child prodigy struggles for acceptance and recognition, spends time supporting other musicians, bursts onto the scene, is taken advantage of by producers and adoring fans, copes with drugs and alcohol, and if not dead by 27 from drugs or AIDS, winds up in rehab hoping for a second act.
The movie Rocketman dutifully captures each of these phases, playing alongside a through-line of parental disdain, neglect and emotional abuse. Perhaps the phases in John’s life are segmented in this way, but you can almost hear the pages of the storyboard turning – ok, now the Troubadour segment – like a series of music videos, at times awkwardly strung together.
A youthful 29-year-old Taron Egerton, known from the Kingsmen films, plays Elton John (born Reginald Dwight) as an adult throughout most of the film. His John pales by comparison to Rami Malek’s Freddy Mercury. Other sequences rely on child actors (Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor) to portray his formative, restrictive upbringing as a musical prodigy. Bryce Howard is very un-Jurassic World in her portrayal of his cold-hearted mother. Given John’s full participation in the film, with a nothing-is-off-limits carte blanche to director Dexter Fletcher, the severity of interactions with his parents was apparently represented with full approval. It leaves you feeling very sorry for him, despite his phenomenal transformation and success.
Probably the most powerful sequence in the film, an awe-inspiring debut performance at the Troubadour, is enhanced to fantasy proportions by having John literally float away from his piano, the audience defying gravity and likewise floating upward from the floor of the small club. Those in attendance have bragging rights over a legendary moment in pop music history. In the audience sat Neil Diamond, Stephen Stills and Leon Russell.
When I saw this in the preview I came to expect a more fantasy-like treatment throughout the film. A couple of other fantasy sequences were injected during songs that needed visual embellishment. And how do you tell the story of Elton John without a Grease-like story through song? But the songs were retrofitted to fit the story elements, not originally inspired by them.
To say that the film was more ordinary than fantastic is unfair. But when a biographical film is more mundane than its subject, it leaves you wondering if it could have been better made in someone else’s hands. In fact, Dexter Fletcher was called in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody when its director was fired for bad behavior. The two films have a similar feel.
Interviews with the cast reveal the general feeling that John is a very nice man. You get this sense in the film as well. He can’t even yell at Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) without immediately apologizing.
During the summer of 1976, the song Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, a duet with Kiki Dee seemed to be played every 30 minutes on top-40 radio. Dee is faithfully played here by Rachel Muldoon, complete with auburn bangs and jumper straight out of the music video. It was an enjoyable scene that was sadly cut short by the entrance of John’s lover/nemesis John Reid (Richard Madden), who came to dominate and control John during his most productive period. So, add him to the list of people you come to hate while learning about Elton.
I always thought (and so did many others) that Bernie Taupin was Elton’s partner. The film straightens that out. They were like brothers, and this is repeated several times. But they were the Lennon and McCartney of early 70s pop music, a partnership so effective they became a single entity.
Like other true-life films with living subjects, a few photos and credits at the end reveal a happy ending. Elton has been sober for 28 years and is married to David Furnish. He has stopped touring to focus on raising their two adopted children.
Rocketman (2019) runs 2 hours 1 minute and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?