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September 23rd, 2019

 

Rocketman

**1/2

I am a connoisseur of 1970s British rock.

If a British band was more popular in the UK than here, I was probably listening.  T.Rex, Mott the Hoople, Bowie, Brian Eno, Queen, Elvis Costello, Sex Pistols, Joy Division, The Clash, Wire, Gang of Four…

This was not a normal record collection for a Vermont kid coming of age in the 90s. In fact, if you’ve heard of all the bands above, I’m sad that we aren’t friends.

I am a music nerd, to be sure. But apparently I knew less about Elton John than the average person.

Walking into the movie, I knew exactly two Elton John songs. I knew of Tiny Dancer because it is featured in the movie “Almost Famous.” And I knew of Rocketman, but only because the President used it in a diplomatic Tweet.

If nothing else, “Rocketman” was an education for me. For example, I learned that Elton John was sent to Los Angeles by his record company before he even had a hit album. So Elton performed a reverse Jimmy Hendrix: achieving stardom across the Atlantic before becoming famous in his home country.

“Rocketman” takes us back to 1950s London. Reginald Dwight was an unhappy kid from a very unhappy family. Elton’s parents must be dead, because otherwise they would surely sue the movie studio for defamation of character. The film shows that Elton’s dad was emotionally distant. And his mom was selfishly sardonic.

But young Reginald Dwight was a music prodigy. Armed with killer piano skills, his buddy Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, and a new stage name, Elton John (played by Taron Egerton) became the world’s top-selling artist in the early 70s.

“Rocketman” has some inventive musical numbers. There’s a show-stopping scene where Elton goes from the bottom of a pool to an ambulance to the hospital and suddenly to the stage in Dodger Stadium all in one song. Director Dexter Fletcher presents the first decade of Elton John’s career as a drug-fueled fever dream.

Critics are comparing “Rocketman” favorably to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The critics are wrong. “Rocketman” isn’t nearly as well-conceived, well-paced, emotionally satisfying, or sophisticated as last year’s Queen blockbuster.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” was a unique exploration of a 20th Century superstar who worked to be the exact opposite of a contemporary celebrity who shares every thought with his Instagram followers. Freddie Mercury hid his name and his sexuality and lied about his family and his disease. He was world famous and a total mystery.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a timeless ode to a man who triumphed over the pitfalls of celebrity and did it his way. “Rocketman” tells us that a boy with cold, miserable parents will grow up to be a miserable man. Sadly, we already knew that.

“Rocketman” rises above its mundane material because of Taron Egerton’s impressively human performance. He does a bang-up job of showing that flamboyant stage Elton was just a clownish persona. Egerton feels like a relatable, average Englishman, even as he snorts a line of cocaine in a stadium dressing room while wearing a literal fairy outfit with sparkly sequins.

“Rocketman” is a loving ode to Elton John’s music and a perfectly watchable musical biopic. But compared to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it doesn’t hold a candle in the wind. Oh, I take it back: I guess I know THREE Elton John songs.

[Max’s wife’s counterpoint: This movie was better than Bohemian Rhapsody in every way.]

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