“… They said, get back, honky cat
Better get back to the woods
Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways
And, oh, the change is gonna do me good…“
Lyric excerpt from “Honky Cat.” 1972.
Some people had Queen, some loved Metallica, others–they loved modern bands like Green Day and unfortunately Nickelback. Whatever you listened to as a kid, be it from your parents’ collection, the radio, or the dust-covered albums with the alluring cover that captured your imagination–that was what you had.
It was that and maybe a couple of passing remarks upon further question from my young mind, that fueled my love for Elton John. I’m the wondering type, and I ran with it; slowly digging through the entire back catalog of every album ever released–even “Victim of Love.”
For a good period in my childhood, no CD cases were opened up as much as those of Elton John’s. I’d plug the headphones into my mom’s portable CD player at 2 A.M., slap in whatever classic was checked out from the library on this weeks rotation (Honky Château, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Songs from the West Coast helped build up a lofty library bounty on me), and hit the damn play button until I heard the first note of “Honky Cat” vibrate through my ears.
It was late at night when I wanted most to be taken away by the musical stylings of the young, the old, and the self-destructing, Elton John. It was medicine; the melancholy ballads, the rhythmic funk sprayed passionately into an unknowing microphone, and the poetic fables told with vigor by John and his creative partner, Bernie Taupin. Now, this was music.
What I find most charming about 2019’s “Rocketman” is that every emotion I felt on my first listen to “Yellow Brick Road,” feels duplicated in story form, just as fresh as it ever was. I was, for a span of little over two hours, pulled into Elton’s world for one more first peak.
I think it’s also important to note, I am not a musical fan and to be entirely honest, didn’t realize “Rocketman” would be a musical in the sense of having over the top musical numbers. I know plenty adore them, but after a while, a musical to me feels like a weak story with two good songs out of twelve. Sure, I love “Rocky Horror” and “Hairspray,” but “Singin’ in the Rain”? I’d rather be watching C-SPAN.
But let me tell you, you can add another to that list.
I left the theater enthusiastic and relieved that the filmmakers behind “Rocketman” found a new way to show an old formula.
One of the biggest strengths of “Rocketman” is that it doesn’t kid itself. It doesn’t play the B-sides or the lesser knowns.
It’s essentially a “best of” album with class, led by what I can only picture as a career changing and Oscar-worthy performance by Taron Edgerton as Elton John.
A casual listener who likes the hits or a die-hard fan can both go into the same screening and I’d guarantee you, they’d both leave, “Saturday Night Alright (For Fighting)” still joyously playing fresh in the brain.
Behind the camera is director Dexter Fletcher who’s not so-unfamiliar with musical biopics after taking over from Bryan Singer amidst controversy on last years lesser “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Despite the awards, “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t do it for me. False representations of facts always push me away from something meant to be biographical no matter how well something is presented. After “Rocketman” I’m really wondering how much work Fletcher really got to do on Rhapsody or if he was just a fill in for a nearly finished product. “Rocketman” shines with inventive direction, eye-catching transitions within musical numbers that will stop you dead in your feet, and a dreamlike portrayal of the rise and fall (and subsequent redemption) of one of America’s longest lasting mega-stars.
The directing plays a big part in the success of “Rocketman” but what really propels it beyond past musical biopics is the vision of screenwriter and playwright Lee Hall and the contributions of Elton John himself, wanting all events of the rise and decline displayed in the forefrunt.
Lee Hall whose prior work consists of 2000’s “Billy Elliot” and 2011’s “War Horse” seems to have had a vision for an almost fantasy oriented musical of a troubled musicians fame and downward spiral, stepping away from the straight-forward formula many duplicate to failure.
If I have one last take away besides the incredible transformation into a serious leading man Taron Edgerton takes in this (I have zero complaints for Edgerton; seriously–give him an Oscar) it’s the involvement of Elton John through the entire production. The enduring fan-base and timeless hits make this movie possible because in most cases, movie studios don’t care until you’re dead. Then come the flocks of grief hawks and nostalgic old-timers to the cinema swarming for a fond tour down memory lane.
The lasting relevance of Elton John, in this case, feels make or break in “Rocketman.” With John still seeing critical success and a career spanning fifty decades, the ability to watch your own biopic–now that’s something to think about it. You can’t make a movie like this after someone’s gone–especially someone with a multi-million dollar estate and what I predict is countless lawyers. As they say, “don’t speak ill of the dead.”
Biopics have touched on the dark sides of the stars, I’m not insisting they don’t because I haven’t seen them all. I won’t see them all and I won’t lie either. But in the immersive experience, to fully involve the viewer, don’t you want to feel put in a time and place you never could be? If you ask me, that’s the best part of the movie experience. With that sort of build up, all elements have to be as persuasive as possible.
I have no doubts “Rocketman” told it as it unfolded. Every petty squabble, every painful blow, every drink swallowed–its clear watching that Elton John was interested in honesty and art. You can feel it, a strong inkling of genuinity beaming from the screen during each scene as if transposed historical records.
“Rocketman,” be the cards in its favor, deserves to stand the test of time. I hope years from now, this will be one kids talk about as a “classic” or adults remember as one they stumbled across on Netflix one day and fell in love with. It’s worth more than that if you ask me, but I might be a bit biased. I still stay up to 2 A.M. listening to “Bennie and the Jets.” Not much has changed.