Whenever films are created about public figures, it can be easy to brush over the ugly details of their lives. This is especially true if the person is still living and has a say in how they’re depicted. It’s a breath of fresh air, then, when we’re allowed to see a story that isn’t whitewashed from beginning to end.
Described as a musical fantasy, Rocketman is a retrospective of Elton John’s upbringing, the discovery of his talents, rise to fame, and, most importantly, the mistakes he made. Throughout it all, the singer’s music is creatively woven into the story to make it feel more like a dream, and it’s a visceral experience throughout creating a beautiful, and mesmerizing, narrative.
The film covers the life of the pop star from his childhood in the 1950s to his fame as an adult in the 70s and 80s. It explores John’s proclivity toward music and learning the piano as a child, and going on to study in the Royal Academy of Music, and his time playing in a local pub and backing up touring artists with his band. Soon enough, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is introduced as John’s writing partner and lyricist, a partnership which has now lasted five decades. As Elton John’s star rises, so do the pressures of his newfound life. A considerable amount of the film focuses on the singer’s volatile personal and professional relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden).
What makes Rocketman incredibly special is its admission that the film is, ‘Based on a true fantasy.’ There are certainly some facts and people within the film that were changed or adjusted to fit the story being told, but much of what we see is true or similar to Elton John’s actual life.
Unlike another recent biopic featuring Freddie Mercury, played by Rami Malek, Rocketman doesn’t pretend to be what it isn’t. Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie masquerading as fact, drenched in fictionalized events, misplaced dates, obvious mistruths, and, overall, poor writing and plot development. The music of Queen, ultimately, takes a back seat as it tries to push a fictionalized account of Freddie Mercury, ignoring or brushing over many of the hard truths and discomforts of his life.
Rocketman dives head first into Elton John’s addictions to alcohol, cocaine, sex, spending, and hedonism. These activities and their consequences are on full display and rightfully earned the film its R rating.
And, of course, as a musical fantasy, the music in Rocketman is superb and used so well in the film that it feels natural. While Bohemian Rhapsody simply showed Mercury and his band in the studio, trying to make music, and lip syncing, Rocketman weaves Elton John’s music into the story. The characters onscreen are singing, and they’re actually doing their own singing. At specific points, it is as if the characters are on a stage, moving from set to set, just as you would see with a live musical. These transitions, as the music plays and the songs are sung, are captivating.
Taron Egerton, in his interpretation of Elton John, gives a spectacular performance that clearly demonstrates his talent as an actor. With every feeling, obstacle, argument, and failure, Egerton is expressive in the way he moves and behaves. As a young and relatively new actor, with only a handful of films under his belt, Taron Egerton is somebody to watch as his career catapults into stardom.
Jamie Bell’s performance is complementary to Egerton’s, and they’re a good pair as their characters either work together or grow apart over two hours. Bell is always a pleasure to watch and gives consistent performances in whatever he does. Richard Madden, too, has found success in acting and he has been rumored to be the next James Bond after Daniel Craig. His role in The Bodyguard and here as Elton John’s manager may help him to achieve that.
At the heart of Rocketman, with all of the music, choreography, and fun, is a story of struggle. As we see Elton John struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, sex addiction, and other vices, his pain is evident. But, this story is also one of hope. While Elton John comes to terms with who he is, his sexuality, and his passion for music, he will need to find a way to overcome what is destroying his life. The result is something beautiful and has to be seen to be appreciated.
Rocketman will surely go down as one of the most memorable and enjoyable films this year, and it will have rightfully earned any award recognition it receives. However, because it is so fresh on the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody, and Rami Malek’s success, there is some doubt as to how well Rocketman will be able to do.
Put simply, it may not get what it deserves in the end, even though it’s the better story, with better acting, music, and production value. That would be a shame, but only time will tell.
This review originally appeared on Salt Lake Film Review