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“Rocketman” Never Takes Flight

Elton John is a legend. No one will argue that. Nor will anyone take issue with his colorful life being given the biopic treatment. The way Rocketman opts to tell this tale, however, that’s a whole other story. Opening this week, the John biopic does not soar like its title would suggest. Worse yet, it misuses and/or wastes much of the musician’s most famous songs. This is easily the most disappointing movie of the year so far. Oscar voters may ultimately be fooled later on in 2019 by a strong central turn and a fondness for the figure being portrayed, but I’m not. This is quite the misfire.

The film is, as mentioned above, a biopic of Elton John (Taron Egerton as an adult), the chart topping musician, known as one of the biggest artists ever to grace the medium. Born Reginald Dwight, he was an awkward child, though a musical prodigy. We see Reggie (Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley, depending on the age) deal with his problematic parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), before gaining some stature as a musician. He changes his name to Elton John, hooks up with a lyricist in Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and they’re on their way to fame. That’s where the trouble begins. Bernie is a friendly rock in his life, but alcohol, drugs, and sex threaten to waylay him, especially in regard to his relationship with lover John Reid (Richard Madden). The standard biopic moments are seen, though the style is different. Elton’s songs are performed by the cast as fantasy moments, meant to illuminate the story. Sadly, it’s more compelling in theory than execution. Dexter Fletcher directs a screenplay by Lee Hall, with the rest of the cast including Tom Bennett, Tate Donovan, Stephen Graham, Gemma Jones, Charlie Rowe, and more. George Richmond provides the cinematography, while Matthew Margeson composed the score.

Aside from Taron Egerton’s vibrant performance and Jamie Bell’s effective, if under used supporting turn as Bernie Taupin, very little works. The treatment of the songs undercut Elton John’s tale, and vice versa. The film never gets off the ground. In deciding to make this a musical fantasy, the reality is shortchanged in an incredibly damaging way. A jukebox musical about John’s life with his songs isn’t inherently a bad idea, it’s just handled so haphazardly here that it doesn’t ever manage to jive. You keep waiting but it never happens. Undoubtedly, this will be compared to Bohemian Rhapsody, due to the close proximity to each other, along with Dexter Fletcher helming both. They’re equally problematic, just in opposite manners. Alas.

A positive: Taron Egerton is strong here, no question. He’s the only aspect of Rocketman that’s at all worthy of Academy Award attention. If there’s a fruitful campaign to be run, it’ll be for him. Egerton has the voice to pull off John’s tunes, as well as the desire to fully embrace the part. That leads to an immersive turn that’s heads and tails better than everything else on the screen. The aforementioned Jamie Bell is good too, as are the costumes, but Egerton is the one thing that even a detractor of the flick won’t be able to grumble about, if voters embrace him, that is.

Tomorrow, fans of Elton John will undoubtedly be curious about Rocketman and rush to theaters to see what’s what here. Be warned though, this is not your standard issue biopic. Sadly, it’s not a particularly good one either, despite the attempts to breath fresh life into the genre. Really, the only thing to hang your hat on here is Egeron’s performance. Few other movies so far this year have had higher prospects yet underwhelmed me as much as this one did. 2019 will have worse films (and already has, for that matter), but none waste potential and disappoint quite as much as this one has…

Rocketman is in theaters this weekend.

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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