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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 14, 2019

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Rocketman

Biopics -- biographical movies -- are devilishly hard to do well. Especially when everybody knows the subject of the movie.

Then, if you really want to practically guarantee a botched job, you do a biopic of a singer. Then your lead actor not only has to nail the appearance and manner of the subject, he also has to sing like him. (Or you try to lip-sync the recordings you have of the real person, which always looks kind of awful.)

When Robert Altman tried to show Loretta Lynn in his movie Nashville, he named the character something else so that Ronee Blakley did not have to look or sound very much like Loretta Lynn at all.

However, she looked a lot more like Loretta Lynn than Sissy Spacek did when she played the singer herself in the movie Coal Miner's Daughter. Spacek, not known as a singer, actually performed all the vocals herself, and did an outstanding job. No, she didn't sound like Loretta Lynn -- but she sounded like a credible country singer giving decent renditions of Lynn's signature songs.

That's the approach used in the Elton John biopic Rocketman, which is one of the finest biopics of a singer/songwriter ever made -- maybe even better than Coal Miner's Daughter, and that was a great movie.

I don't have to tell you the story. It's about Elton John, and since he's still alive, we know this movie doesn't end with his death. It actually starts with his arrival, wearing one of his outrageously flamboyant costumes, in a group therapy session in a mental hospital or rehab facility -- we're never told which it is, really. Then we get the story of his life up to that point.

We see rather a lot of young Reginald Dwight (Elton John's real name), played by Matthew Illesley, who is not only a superb child actor, but also sings like an angel. In fact, he was so good that I rather feared this movie might be like My Left Foot or Forrest Gump, in which the child actor gives a performance that overshadows the performance of the adult actor playing the same character.

That is not what happens here. Taron Egerton, whom audiences know best from his performances as Eggsy, the trainee in the Kingsman movies, is an excellent actor. He does not attempt to do an Elton John imitation. Instead, he creates a fascinating character by the same name, to whom a lot of things happen that also happened to Elton John.

And Taron Egerton sings. He sings all of Elton John's songs. He hits all the high notes, well. He has all the strength to carry off the lower and midrange melodies. He sings flamboyantly on stage. He sings while pretending, very effectively, to play the piano.

And in between, he manages to show Elton John's multiply broken heart when family and some of the loves of his life betray him. (To be fair, these moments build on what was created by Matthew Illesley. It's a fine collaboration.)

I heard (from someone who left the theater after the last credits, when my wife and I also left) that Elton John heard Taron Egerton sing "I'm Still Standing" in the animated movie Sing (2016) and from that "audition" chose him to play the character of Elton John in the movie.

In fact, Taron Egerton worked closely enough with Elton John that they have become friends (per Egerton's interview on The Graham Norton Show). And artistically, anyway, it's hard to imagine that Elton John could have been played by anyone who could have brought off his music so well.

Rocketman does something that I've never seen any movie about a songwriter do even half as well: It shows the process of songwriting in something like a believable fashion.

Now, I've written a lot of songs, many of them performed in stage shows (but none becoming hits, just in case you were madly tempted to look them up). With most of them, I wrote lyrics with no music in mind at all. My frustrated collaborators have made adjustment to the words when it was necessary to make the songs work, and sometimes there's some back-and-forth as I find a better way (in my opinion) to revise the words to fit.

Sometimes, the music comes first and the words are fitted in later. Usually, this is infinitely easier for me, as a lyricist, because then the composer can spring the rhythm and so the song doesn't get into the rut of the ballad stanza.

In Rocketman, we only see the words coming first, and perhaps that's the way Elton John really composed with his longtime collaborator and friend, Bernie Taupin (played with intensity and compassion by Jamie Bell, the original title character in Billy Elliot).

The movie shows them working completely separately most of the time -- the way most of the two-person songwriting teams worked. While the composer is writing the music, the lyricist has nothing useful to do, and vice versa. And, faced with a new set of lyrics, the composer is going to explore the rhythms and music of the words using the licks and chops and riffs that comes easily to mind.

So when they show Elton John sitting down and doodling with chords and rhythms and melodies until something we recognize takes shape, it's quite plausible -- because the film doesn't stupidly show the songwriter making up lyrics at the same time, the way the bad songwriter movies usually do.

Though a big point is made of the fact that Bernie Taupin can't sing for public performance -- on stage, it's all Elton John -- in fact the musical comedy requires that Jamie Bell sing several songs to express what he's thinking and feeling. So it's a good thing he can sing really well.

Most important, as the story flows onward we realize that while Taupin is never Elton John's lover, he is in many ways the love of Elton John's life -- the friend who cared about Elton John more than the singer cared about himself.

I just watched a documentary on Reelz about Janis Joplin's road to self-destruction with drugs, which ended with the irony that Joplin had been clean for a month, or maybe longer, when she got a hit of heroin from an unfamiliar dealer. Not knowing that this heroin was about ten times purer than what she had used before, the massive dose hit her so hard and fast that she was dead before she could call for help. It was truly an accidental overdose. And yet she was just as dead as if she had meant to O.D.

Seeing that Janis Joplin documentary right after seeing Rocketman really brought home to me how lucky Elton John was to be in company with many people who did not encourage his drug and alcohol abuse -- and it is a mark of his character that at some point he made the decision to get clean and stay clean.

He also eventually found true love, but the movie isn't about that. The movie starts when he enters his rehab therapy group and ends when he finishes his story about drugs and alcohol and gets clean.

But what we love and care about is the child with parents who have their own agenda and hurt him deeply, and the young man who finds the writing partner to create an amazing string of brilliant songs -- pop, rock, folk, and various combinations.

Watching the movie, I was struck over and over by the fact that Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote a series of songs that places them in the ranks of the great songwriters like Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Stevie Wonder, Cole Porter, and Paul Simon.

Another thing the movie makes very clear is that Elton John was a musical prodigy, and he came to writing pop songs with a thorough grounding in classical, blues, and jazz. Elton John understood music down to the bones, the way most of the best composers did -- even Irving Berlin, who was never a piano player but knew what a song needed to be.

Now, was Elton John a perfect songwriter? Look, it's not his fault that "Candle in the Wind" was played to death, not only when it was new but again when Princess Diana died. I would have hated it by then even if it were a good song. But it's not a good song. When you compare it with the great Taupin/John songs, it doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same list.

However, we hear only a few snippets of the music to that song; nobody sings it. Thank you, Matthew Margeson, who wrote the soundtrack and, presumably, fit in all the Elton John songs where they needed to go.

The fact is that Rocketman is a worthy depiction of the musician and the man, with excellent screenwriting, directing, design, and acting.

Rocketman tells a powerful and moving story, which seems to overlap truth at many points. The actors are outstanding, especially Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, and Matthew Illesley.

Bryce Dallas Howard is amazing (and unrecognizable) as Elton John's mother, Sheila. And it was a hoot to recognize Ophelia Lovibond in the role of Arabella, having only seen her as Kitty Winter in Elementary.

At the end of Rocketman, they show parallel pictures and videos of Taran Egerton in the same pose and similar costume as real pictures of Elton John. Even though this makes it clear that Egerton was definitely not trying to mimic Elton John, we also find it easy to transfer our emotional connection to Taran Egerton's performance to the real man -- and back again.

With the possible exception of Gary Oldman's brilliant performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, this may be the most excellent film depiction of a well-known and much-admired famous person's life. Elton John was wise to let this film proceed with his cooperation and in his lifetime. No celebrity has been better served by a film than Elton John has been by Rocketman.

*

It's worth spending a moment on the depiction of people in the movie who don't come off very nicely. I won't list them -- when you see the movie you'll know who I mean. Wasn't somebody worried about getting sued?

First, even people who come off badly are given good moments in the film, and it never feels like their contributions to Elton John's life are being villainized.

Second, I assume that with Elton John being as old as he is, most of these other people are dead. The dead have no standing to sue for libel.

Third, truth is a complete defense against charges of libel -- at least in the U.S. If the unflattering depiction happens to be an accurate depiction of real events and conversations, then libel does not apply.

Fourth, look back at the first point. Anybody who sued over this movie would be phenomenally dumb. This is an excellent movie; the actors portraying even the negative characters do a superb job. This movie permanently attaches every character in the film to Elton John and Bernie Taupin, two of the most brilliant creators in recent music history. It would be hard to show a way that this movie caused anybody any harm.

Above all, the movie causes the audience no harm. It is entertaining from beginning to end, often very funny, often poignant, always beautiful, and above all, an outstanding musical. Poor Abba -- they only got the Mamma Mia movies. Elton John got the far better musical Rocketman.

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