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YIN/YANG REVIEWS: Rocketman / Always Be My Maybe

By Derek May:

YIN: Rocketman

It was only a matter of time before it happened. Elton John is near-unanimously hailed across music genre lines as one of the greatest, most influential musicians of his lifetime, and with good reason. His music is personal and yet universal, epic and yet melodic. Though the music and the man are inextricably linked, one without the other only gives us half the story. And thus it’s both obvious and a stroke of genius to present Elton John’s quintessential biopic as a musical fantasy, weaving together a standard dramatic narrative with ethereal, dreamlike song and dance sequences. And somehow . . . it all works.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: with the massive critical and commercial success of last year’s Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, comparisons between that work and this are all but unavoidable. Both showcase a gay musical icon of the 70s and 80s who struggled with the personal demons of sex, drugs, alcohol, and toxic managerial lovers who sent them astray. Behind the camera, there are even more connections, with Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher having finished the work on Rhapsody after Brian Singer was fired, and the character of producer John Reid even appears in both films (played by Game of Thrones alumi Aidan Gillen in Rhapsody and Richard Madden in Rocketman). But despite all these, the two films are wildly and markedly different in presentation, tone, and theme, and as such should be judged on their own merits.

Good, now that that’s settled, Rocketman is every bit the reflection of its subject. Flamboyant, excessive, beautiful . . . and tragically human. The film chronicles Elton (born Reggie Dwight) from his earliest years through his dalliances with drugs, sex, suicide, and depression until the early 80s when he is finally able to receive the catharsis needed to overcome these issues and sober up. The theme of the film is therefore one of personal growth and self-acceptance, as well as learning to be open to the love you deserve. But the journey is long and difficult, fraught with misturns and dead ends. But it’s also extraordinarily relatable, as it’s a universally human expedition that we all experience in some form or another. And that’s really the brilliance of the film, to somehow balance the carnival-level pageantry with the all-too-human personal and emotional trials.

Fletcher and writer Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, Victoria & Abdul) understand that the spectacle and the man are one, and must work in a kind of harmony rather than in opposition, or worse, gratuitously. Fletcher—who I first noticed as an actor back in 1998’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels—shows a masterful command of visual storytelling by knowing when to push the dreamlike extravaganza and when to allow the drama to breathe unencumbered. Several moments are expressed without hardly a word spoken, and yet the plot and emotion come through with crystal clarity. The songs aren’t just for reference, but thematic expressions of what is happening at the given moment. Thus, they aren’t always in chronological order, but where they have the most relevance.

While this is all of critical importance, the movie truly rides on its cast to bring it all to life, and particularly on its Elton. Personally, I can’t think of anyone better suited to the role than Taron Egerton, who’s quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. Egerton was fairly impressive in his breakout role in the Kingsmen franchise, but he absolutely blew me away in one of my favorite sports films, Eddie the Eagle (which, as it happens, was also directed by Fletcher). He’s got the look, the acting chops, and to my personal surprise, the voice. Egerton is an accomplished singer, and performs all of the songs in Rocketman himself (a requirement by Sir Elton). And he kills it. Egerton embodies the varied aspects of the man, from the shy sweetness of a musical prodigy to the giddy jubilation of a rising star, and ultimately, to the crushing pain of a man who feels unloved and cast aside. Egerton does it all with a panache and a charm that instantly endears, and his ability to sometimes seamlessly navigate across the emotional spectrum within a scene is simply a joy to behold. For me, his performance is every bit as good, if not better, than Malek’s in Rhapsody, and it will truly be a crime if it’s not equally recognized come awards season.

But as Elton John fans surely know, the face of the music has never been in it alone. John’s musical partner, Bernie Taupin, presents as far more than the simple writer of these classic songs, but as Elton’s brother, confidant, and support system throughout the many years. Thespian Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Fantastic Four) has made just as many questionable film decisions over his career as he has memorable ones, but his skills as a performer are never in doubt. And once again, he knocks it out of the park as Taupin, a man struggling to find a way to support his friend as well as live his own life. Bell’s quiet, understated choices reflect the gentle hand he tries to offer his friend. Sure, there might have been a few hiccups along the way, and Taupin isn’t presented as perfect, but he’s certainly the rock on which Elton relies, and Bell plays off Egerton with mutual chemistry and proficiency.

Special recognition has to be given to Bryce Dallas Howard’s portrayal of John’s mother, Sheila. Aside from a disturbingly spot-on English accent, she somehow manages to infuse Sheila with a humanity that could easily be lost amidst the poisonous disdain or outright apathy of the woman. Howard gives a warts-and-all performance, running headlong into some of Sheila’s worst attributes while also making her a sincere and at least partially interested mother. It feels safe to say this is her best exhibition to date, and like Egerton, I truly hope she is acknowledged properly for her work.

Richard Madden provides in an impressive turn as John’s manager and part-time lover, John Reid. Madden is simultaneously charming and despicable, with a smooth exterior that belies his hard edged personality. What sets it apart from, say, Allen Leech’s similar function as Paul Prenter in Rhapsody is that Reid demonstrates an aspect untouched there: that of the physically abusive relationship. The turbulent back and forth between the two men serve to add another layer to Elton’s tragic tale as an abuse survivor trapped in yet-another unloving relationship.

This is a key aspect to the film, not just in its subject matter but in the fact that the film dares to hold nothing back. Fletcher and team bare it all to show the sex, the drugs, the abuse, the lack of parentage, as well as the consequences thereof. It really cements the audience’s sympathies for John and makes his inevitable rise above it all that much more meaningful.