Elton John bursts onto the screen at the start of Rocketman in winged, rock-n-roll glory: dressed in a wild orange jumpsuit, trademark sunglasses (sparkly ones, at that), and wearing an enormous headdress.
In full stage costume, he plops down in a chair in a dank, bleak room. Elton says to the others sitting in a circle: “Hello. My name is Elton. And I’m an alcoholic.”
From there, we begin the ascent of a roller coaster of a film which quickly plunges the viewer into the depth’s of Elton’s life, starting with childhood. Director Dexter Fetcher helms this film, with Taron Egerton in the lead role as an adult Elton. Rocketman had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this week.
We meet Reginald Dwight (Elton’s birth name). “Reggie” is a young boy with a prodigious talent for the piano. He earns a scholarship to London’s famed Royal Academy of Music where he wows his teachers and goes on to perform as a boy, then teen, then an ambitious, rock-star-aspiring young adult.
There is no gradual entry into this movie-musical. From the first scene – within a mere five minutes – you get a sense of how this film will roll. “The Bitch is Back” begins to play and we’re thrust into an full-on song and dance number, typically reserved for a bit later on in a film or stage musical. The tone has been set.
This film is rather reminiscent of another movie-musical set to the songs of another explosively famous British musical talent – the Beatles. Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe was an unparalleled film that broke the existing constructs for the movie-musical genre. It was a fantastical phantasmagoria of song, dance, trippy visuals, and a vivid imagination come to life. Rocketman follows its lead.
Fantastical elements abound as magical moments appear from thin air. Elton flies at the Troubadour. He meets his younger self at the bottom of a swimming pool. A young Elton (“Reggie”) sees a full dozen-plus-piece orchestra materialize in his bedroom with twinkling stars blinking as the strings play the melody of “Rocketman.”
That boy goes to school. His doting, supportive grandmother offers to take him. Elton’s mom (played by a brilliant Bryce Dallas Howard) loves him when he’s a boy (as for him in adulthood, that’s a different matter), but she doesn’t seem to know how to best express her affections. His father, however, is downright cold and apathetic towards Elton.
After Elton’s mom is unfaithful, his dad leaves, without so much as a “goodbye” to young Elton. His father has always tried to squash Elton’s spirit and originality. Empirical research has shown that people who struggle with low self-esteem are more likely to have a critical, negative nature, like Elton’s father, who cuts him down at every turn. Viewing the character of Elton’s father through this lens and with this knowledge, allows you to see him with sympathy. (Albeit, a very subdued sympathy. The guy is a straight-up jerk.)
Elton, after achieving fame, glory, and global success, goes to visit his father. He arrives at his father’s modest house in a Rolls-Royce. His father greets him, accompanied by two young children, his sons. Elton gifts him with a wildly expensive, diamond-encrusted Chopard watch. His father gives it a cursory glance and sets the watch aside, with nary a thank you. He proceeds to take advantage of his son’s fame, asking for an autograph. Elton begins to sign his record: “To Dad,” and his father says, “No, it’s not for me. Make it out to Arthur, my mate at work. He’s a fan.”
Elton’s ascent is rocket-fueled. He meets songwriter Bernie Taupin (an ever-lovable Jamie Bell), and the pair together develop some of the most iconic rock songs of the past decades. “In twenty years, we’ve never had a single argument,” Elton tells his fellow AA attendees. Elton and Bernie love and respect each other, and their friendship unfaltering. “You’re my brother,” Bernie tells Elton while visiting him in rehab. Their friendship is the beating heart of this movie.
Beyond his friendship, Elton finds real love, followed by heartbreak. He falls in love with a man who becomes his manager. Their relationship is a tumultuous one; drugs and drinks are toxic additives to their entanglement, which begins with a hot, fiery passion, and then goes down in flames and becomes ashen nothingness. When Elton discovers his boyfriend/manager John doing what his mother did to his father – being unfaithful – he is heartbroken and attempts suicide.
When Elton tells his mother he’s gay, she is dismissive. “I’ve known for years,” then she says coldly, “I just hope you know you’re choosing a life in which you’ll be alone forever. You’ll never be loved properly.”
At the film’s press conference in Cannes, Taron Egerton said: “We would try to tailor the songs to fit the story of the movie. This was about trying to do something creatively with the lyrics… [In the end] it’s a story about a man who has found happiness.”
That man, Rocketman himself, was in Cannes for the film premiere on Thursday night. Elton John walked the red carpet with ease and grace, wearing the satisfied look of a man who has achieved great fame and success but ultimately knows – as the film shows – the things which count most are all to do with matters of the heart.