Recently there have been a couple of movies that have left me wondering if there is a new measure of success in the music industry. To be truly successful, I wonder, do you have to pour your life, career and greatest hits into a larger-than-life musical? Does it make a difference if it’s jukebox or biographical? Hollywood or Broadway? True to life or just inspired?
Truth be told, it makes no difference to me. Just keep ‘em coming, please!
“Rocketman,” as some may have guessed from the title, is the story of Elton John, an English singer-songwriter and pianist who took the music world by storm in the late 60s. According to Wikipedia, he’s currently the fourth best-selling music artist on the entire planet. Not only has he sold over three hundred million records, but he also composed “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” and collaborated with Hans Zimmer to create the iconic soundtrack of Disney’s “The Lion King.” And if that doesn’t make him worth watching a movie about, then his road to stardom, his struggles to accept himself, embrace his sexuality, and overcome addiction and alcoholism, certainly do. “Rocketman” is a dark, personal story at its core, but it is surrounded on all sides by the flamboyantly beautiful costumes, buck wild musical talent, and stage presence that made Elton John a star.
This review is a little bit late to the party; the first time I watched this movie was in June. “Rocketman” was an incredibly timely Pride Month watch with a brilliant message about self–acceptance. However, I didn’t even begin to write this review until I’d seen it three times, and it was well past August by then. For another film, I might have skipped writing a review after having let the process drag on for so long past its release date. But through all my summer procrastination, I knew that eventually, I needed to talk about “Rocketman,” because I would never stop thinking about it. My heart was wrenched, my gut was punched, but the music, the message and the ending kept me in good spirits. There was a lot of emotional impact there; it made want to cry, it made me want to sing, and most importantly, it made me want to share this masterpiece with all of you.
Despite the far-reaching fame of his music, I actually didn’t know a lot about Elton John coming into this. At first, I’ll admit, I was mainly in it for the costumes. They were hugely colorful, kitschy and loud, painstakingly decorated and largely faithful to the unique ensembles he actually wore during his performances. Those costumes really painted the atmosphere of the movie — in good times, they were glittering testaments to the beautiful, exciting places his music could lead him, and in bad, they stood as gaudy reminders of Elton’s cracking facade as he struggled to stay afloat. One outfit in particular, an absurdly theatrical devil costume drawn entirely from the imagination of costume designer Julian Day, played a large role in the frame narrative. The story was told through Elton’s group therapy sessions in rehab. Over the course of the movie, he gradually strips back the layers of his gaudy exterior, allowing himself to become more honest and vulnerable as he tells his story. It’s a great visual representation of his character development (through I was sorry to eventually have to stop looking at that awesome devil outfit, with its striking rhinestones and feathers).
Eye-catching costumery included, I love a musical that’s campy in all the right places. This isn’t a movie that bogs down its soundtrack with repetitive concert scenes; the musical performances are downright theatrical. Look forward to fog, effectively used slo-mo, rocket-powered jaunts into outer space, a doleful descent down to the bottom of a pool and scores of other unique visuals that create the perfect backdrop for both the story and the music itself. And perhaps the most important thing that this movie did for me was to introduce me to this music.
It’s a powerful thing to see a collection of songs you only kinda know in the context of the life of the man who wrote them. “Rocketman” really made a new fan out of me. Something in particular that I liked about it was that the songs didn’t have to be shoehorned in. They always meshed well with the story, and spoke in a way that was real, raw and genuine. And thanks to the hard work of Taron Egerton, you get a very expressive, very telling performance that really drives in each emotional message. “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” was a toe-tapping time skip through Elton’s early life. “Rocketman” was whimsical and heartbreakingly lonely. “Honky Cat” was a renouncement of Elton’s past, and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” a determined reconnection with it.
From start to finish, I think the choice to use “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” as Elton’s theme was spot on. The song tells a story of renouncing luxury for simpler comforts, remembering your roots, and being true to yourself. The words were written by (and in the film, initially sung by) Bernie Taupin, Elton’s lifelong friend and co-writer, who saw the need for Elton and himself to take a break from the chaos of stardom long before Elton finally did. Their friendship had always helped him stay grounded, and when he needed it most, his best friend’s lyrics spoke to the power of finding those who love you for who you are, and ultimately inspired him to get his life back on track. After the opening chords of the song are teased for the entire film, when Elton finally begins to sing it himself, it made me want to stand up and applaud. The song felt both triumphant and vulnerable, a lot like the film itself.
The first time I saw this movie, I went into the theater knowing nothing more than the lyrics to “Crocodile Rock,” and I left bawling my eyes out. You’d think a movie approved and endorsed by the celebrity it’s about would be watered down and sugarcoated, with all the unsavory bits removed, but “Rocketman” pulled no punches, and I admire it (and Elton himself) for that. My recommendation: check this film out for yourself, experience your full range of emotions, and leave heartened by a powerful message about how “proper” love isn’t dictated by gender or earned through one’s accomplishments. In fact, we all deserve to be loved properly.