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‘Rocketman’ is dubbed a ‘musical fantasy’ for good reason

“Rocketman” is an uneven but still rather daring musical bio-pic about Elton John.

It’s full of embarrassing story-telling cliches and simplistic psychology but it’s also punctuated with musical numbers that break the too-tidy narrative and give it some imaginative breadth. It’s dubbed a “musical fantasy” for good reason.

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I don’t know how many fans expect to see full-on Broadway style dance versions of his songs or music-video-style special effects but the movie is packed with them. And whether or not you’re an Elton John fan, it would be hard not to come away impressed with the sheer number of hits that man produced.

Structurally, the film is rather clunky.

It starts with Elton John at the height of his popularity attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He then begins regaling everyone with stories about his unhappy childhood (as Reginald Dwight), his unhappy adolescence and his unhappy adulthood. With each chapter of his life, we’re treated to extended flashbacks.

At the root of Reg Dwight/Elton John’s problems is he feels unloved. His dad was a disapproving jerk, his mom was too self-centered to care, and when he threw himself into the arms of his eventual manager/lover, he was let down once again. In the words of self-help manuals everywhere, if you don’t love yourself, you can’t expect anyone else to love you. He even admits early on, “I wish I was someone else.”

When he’s first starting out, Dwight gets some advice from an American soul singer on tour in England.

“How does a fat boy from nowhere get to be a song man?”
“You gotta kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”

It turns out the person Reg Dwight really wants to be is “Elton John,” a flashy, outrageous, and always “on” pop icon. And he’s talented enough to become exactly that.

When his steady-as-they-come lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) questions John’s reliance on his flamboyant costumes, his true insecurities come to the surface.

“Don’t you just want to sing without all this ridiculous paraphernalia?”
“People don’t pay to see Reg Dwight. They pay to see Elton John.”

Those insecurities also manifest themselves in his alcoholism, his cocaine addiction, his sex addiction, and even his shopaholic tendencies.

As for the musical numbers, not all of them work well, but some are knock-out sequences. The titular song “Rocketman,” for instance, starts out with a suicide attempt in his pool, and then proceeds to a meeting at the bottom of the pool with his childhood self, a water ballet of rescuers come to his aid, a rush to the hospital where he’s patched up and dressed in a glittery Dodgers baseball outfit just before being pushed on stage to perform in front of thousands of adoring fans. After whacking a baseball out of the stadium, he rockets off the stage into the wild blue yonder. Rocketman, indeed.

Finally, none of this would matter if the man playing Elton John wasn’t convincing. Taron Egerton is excellent and every bit as believable as Rami Malek was playing Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And Egerton actually sings his role, quite well in fact.

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Equally impressive, Egerton is able to reveal the unhappiness of the performer, even when he’s costumed in full regalia. A poignant scene late in the film shows John in his dressing room putting the finishing touches on his costume – devil horns and oversized angel wings. His face in the mirror, though, is expressionless, almost dead-like. And then he turns on that fake stage smile and heads out. It’s a rock’n’roll version of the classic clown – laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.

Significantly and symbolically, John is wearing that costume when he joins that AA meeting at the beginning of the film. Over the course of his telling his life story, he sheds more and more of the costume, metaphorically revealing the Reg Dwight beneath the Elton John.

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