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Rocketman is the new benchmark for bio-pics.

Captain Fantastic

Dismantling the rock star
Dismantling the rock star

In the run-up to Rocketman’s release it was hard to miss how supportive Elton John was of the movie and its promotion — going so far as to appear with his big-screen incarnation, Taron Egerton, at various engagements around the world.

It’s no surprise, though. Elton John served as an executive producer on Rocketman. The man’s lived to tell his own tale, despite his own best efforts to the contrary. And what’s presented here is hardly a puff piece. It’s an honest look at the man and the creation of a rock legend. And it is rated R. As John noted, he hasn’t lived a PG-13 life and he didn’t want the movie to be a watered-down telling of the story.

Good call.

As a narrative, the movie basically covers ages 5-36, ending with the release of I’m Still Standing in 1983. That covers the tumultuous years. The electric boots. The mohair suits. All the scandals people read about in the headlines and in the ma-ga-a-zeens o-oh. That’s the origin story which turns Reginald Kenneth Dwight into Elton Hercules John. The next 36 years (John is now 72) would cover territory that’s in large part a Disneyfication of John’s career — including his beloved songs for The Lion King. That said, the movie’s music spins out to include I Want Love, released in 2001.

It’s all done with artistic license. Loads of artistic license. And the result is downright glorious filmmaking.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

This is one case where the promotional tagline really nails it. Rocketman is “based on a true fantasy.”

Here’s how screenwriter Lee Hall (War Horse) and director Dexter Fletcher (who also directed Egerton in Eddie the Eagle) pulled it off. The hook – the creative conceit — is right in the opening scene. Elton John, rock star, enters a brightly-lit hallway. The roars of cheering crowds can be heard. Then he busts through the doors and enters... a therapy session. Decked out in one of his outlandish stage costumes, Elton begins his confession. He’s an alcoholic. A cocaine addict. A sex addict. He’s hooked on weed. A bulimic. A shopaholic. He has issues with anger management. He is, in short, a flawed and broken man.

Then his 5-year-old self enters the room and the magic begins — going back to Reginald Dwight’s childhood home and life with his parents, a rather cold Mom (Bryce Dallas Howard, Gold) and an emotionally-constipated Dad (Steven Mackintosh, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). The tune is the The Bitch Is Back. The color is faded, sun-bleached. Except for Reginald. He’s luminous, in Technicolor.

As the movie shifts between those early years and his therapeutic analysis of his life, Elton dismantles his own costume. First, off come the horns. And ultimately he sheds the whole crazy outfit and puts on a bath robe. Then some gym clothes.

It’s a truly brilliant approach to telling this out-sized, colorful life. The creative process itself is hard to capture on film (see also Tolkien, which covers the author’s formative years, but far less energetically). Rocketman goes right for the jugular, fashioning itself as a musical fantasy that lets John’s own songs help propel the story and the emotion.

Crocodile Rock

It’s a little bit funny to think about the standard tropes of this type of movie, the bio-pic of a major music star. The mainstays are sex and drugs, maybe some abusive relationships. Cheating hearts. Truckloads of money earned and squandered. Allegiances broken. Creative differences.

At the Troubadour
At the Troubadour

Rocketman has some of that in spades. (Sex and drugs? Oh yeah.) But what it doesn’t have — doesn’t need — is a creative struggle. Reginald Dwight was a full-blown musical prodigy with just enough music in the family genes to set off a world-altering nuclear explosion of talent. But he’s not a writer.

Then fate brings Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, Peter Jackon’s King Kong). He’s a genius wordsmith who needs help putting his words to music.

Together. Music. History.

At one point, the headlines blazing across the screen include this gem that puts things in perspective: “4% of all album sales attributed to Elton John.” Sonic boom. The music truly elevated audiences, starting with a groundbreaking performance in 1970 at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. So appropriately, magically recreated here.

As legend has it, in all the decades of their relationship, John and Taupin have never had an argument. “Argument,” then, must be left to interpretation because their relationship wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows, not even in the span of Rocketman.

Honky Cat

No life of consequence is lived without risk and controversy. The author of this review stands by that mantra.

To say the very least, Elton John was, is and ever shall be a risk taker and hardly shy of controversy. But it’s all driven by something painfully basic and simple: the desire to be loved. In the space of 2 hours, Rocketman colorfully and elegantly surfaces the impetus behind the legend as influences from family, friends, outside forces and internal pressures forge a singular life.

At one point, Elton wishes he was someone else. He’s struggling to find a path in the music world when this gem of advice is tossed his way with deep, deep impact: “You’ve gotta kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”

Amen to that.

Through it all, as Elton reflects on the triumphs and the near-tragedies, he floats the notion maybe he should’ve tried to be more ordinary. What a sad change in world history that would’ve caused.

As Elton — through that therapy session — makes peace with himself, the movie continues to find ways to so eloquently portray the experience. And it all gets wrapped up in one big hug. A hug between the 30-something Elton John and his 5-year-old Reginald Dwight.