Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Steven Mackintosh, Tate Donovan, Charlie Rowe, Matthew Illesley, Kit Connor, Harriet Walter, Jess Radomska, Jason Pennycooke, Kamil Lemieszewski, Steven Mackintosh, Jimmy Vee, Rachel Muldoon, Celinde Schoenmaker and Emily Tebbutt.
Screenplay by Lee Hall.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher.
Distributed by Paramount Pictures. 121 minutes. Rated R.
Last year when I was watching Bohemian Rhapsody, there was a simple early warning sign that the movie had no interest in telling the true story of Freddie Mercury and Queen. It was when they showed the band playing the song “Fat Bottomed Girls” on their first American tour, even though the song would not be written until four years later.
Now, in Rocketman, early in the film, they dramatize a legendary Elton John performance at the Los Angeles club The Troubadour which took place in August of 1970 and set his star on the rise. During this scene, they show the singer tearing down the place with a spirited performance of “Crocodile Rock.”
“Crocodile Rock” was released in 1973 on the album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Just the Piano Player, a good three years on from that show. In that time John had released four more albums and pretty much completely changed his musical style – or at least it had evolved significantly.
It is not like there were no time-appropriate John classics that could have been used for that scene. In the actual show, John played such early favorites as “Your Song,” “Border Song,” “Country Comfort,” “Burn Down the Mission” and “Take Me to the Pilot.” Even if they didn’t want to use any of the songs really played at the concert, there were other early classics like “Friends” (which had not been released yet, but was recorded about the time of the show), “Skyline Pigeon” or “Love Song” which could have been used that would have fit into the timeline.
And there are certainly plenty of spots later in the film to slot “Crocodile Rock” in that were era appropriate.
Not that I was surprised when this happened. Earlier scenes had shown that the musical timeline had pretty much been thrown in a blender. They showed him as a little boy singing “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” in his first bar gig, and later had him auditioning for his first contract by throwing out snippets of mid-80s singles “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” – songs that came out about 15 years after that meeting.
Now, some people may say that is nit-picking; most people will not know that “Crocodile Rock” came out years later than portrayed in the movie. However, die-hard Elton John fans – and even passionate music fans in general – who are supposedly a big part of the target audience for the movie, will know the difference. If the movie is going to lie about a very basic plot point like this, what other liberties are they going to take with the truth?
Sadly, Rocketman may be even less historically accurate than Bohemian Rhapsody was, and that movie told some real whoppers about the history of Queen.
Another small example – Reg Dwight got his stage name by combining the names of two then-respected British musicians; saxophonist Elton Dean and blues singer Long John Baldry. He did not take on his last name to honor John Lennon, as the film suggests.
In fact, the filmmakers are referring to their film as a “fantasy” version of the life of Elton John.
That’s not to say that there are not very enjoyable parts of Rocketman (as there were in Bohemian Rhapsody). In fact, much of it is a lot of fun. It is just to say that if you are looking for the real story of Elton John’s rise to international superstardom, keep looking. This is the jukebox musical version of his life.
Even the film’s title is an inaccuracy. The song the movie is named after was called “Rocket Man” – two separate words – not the stylized single-word version used here.
And you know what? Because of the over-the-top theatricality of this film and the giddy production numbers choreographed for most on the songs, it is easier to sit through than Bohemian Rhapsody, though this one also is riddled with historical inaccuracies.
Rocketman is more like a big screen version of one of those flashy Broadway jukebox musical bios like Jersey Boys, The Cher Show, Get on Your Feet, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical or Summer: The Musical. It’s not telling the total story and you don’t really expect it to. However, taken on its own terms, it can be quite enjoyable in the moment. (Though, honestly, only two of those five plays listed were actually very good….)
Elton John certainly had the songbook to fuel a musical. John’s long run of classics from 1970 to 1976 amounts to one of the finest bodies of work in modern musical history. And if his music became decidedly more earthbound in the ensuing years, he still has unleashed a good amount of later songs of similar quality, even if his music started getting rather ballad-heavy after 1980.
So, while you are not seeing Elton John’s life story, per se, you are seeing an extremely stylized Vegas version of it.
And while, honestly, I would prefer to see the truth of his life – or at least a reasonable facsimile of it – Rocketman is so obviously not that truth that eventually you look at it as a nearly fictional movie rather than a straightforward narrative. This may not be exactly what happened to Elton, but it may be nice if it were. It’s a slightly sanitized look at sex, drugs and rock and roll, but it’s got style and it’s got flash.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 31, 2019.