Few rock stars have had as big an impact on the world stage as Elton John, who has had more than 50 Top 40 hits and sold 300 million records since breaking out nearly 50 years ago. He’s also had a life story that few can match, with epic battles with sex, drugs and alcohol along the way to worldwide fame and fortune before finally finding true love and sobriety in the early 1990s.
The new film “Rocketman” depicts a surprisingly unflinching portrayal of these struggles, with Taron Egerton of “The Kingsmen” spy comedies delivering a stunning performance as the musical legend. Following on the heels of the massive success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and its depiction of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury’s similarly troubled life, it hopefully will help build a trend of more musical biopics.
The movie opens with the stunning visual of a bloated, middle-aged Elton John (Taron Egerton) wearing an elaborate red devil costume with horns on his head and feathered wings. Writer Pete Bell and director Dexter Fletcher (who took over the troubled production of “Rhapsody”) aren’t setting up a celebration of devilish excess, however.
Rather, Elton is entering an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and his devil costume is a symbol of how corrupted he feels inside, openly admitting that he’s a sex addict, drug addict, alcoholic and bulimic. Moments later, he sees a vision of himself as a five-year-old boy (with his birth name of Reginald Dwight), and as he starts singing one of his classic pop songs, Elton busts out of the meeting with his fellow addicts and group leader running behind, dancing through the streets of his childhood.
This dazzling opening has the silly charm and rock and roll energy of the classic musical “Grease,” and it establishes quickly that this will be no ordinary biopic. Hall and Fletcher have conceived a musical fantasy style for the movie, which bounces back and forth between the anguished confessions Elton makes in his group meeting and various periods of his childhood and adult rise to fame.
The core emotional impact of the movie lies in Elton’s quest for love, as heartbreakingly shown as his 10-year-old self sings his late-period ballad “I Want Love” after his emotionally distant father tells him not to tap his fingers on the family dinner table. In a brilliant move, each family member including his father, his condescending and careless mother, and his saintly grandmother sings a verse, revealing the inner pain that made them turn out the way they are.
Salvation comes in the form of music, as young Reginald is seen playing classical masterpieces by ear from age 5, with his grandma encouraging his artistry all the way to receiving a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Music. As he learns to properly compose, he is told by a record executive that he should put lyrics to his beautiful tunes — but he can’t think of anything to say.
The exec hands him an envelope full of songwriter Bernie Taupin’s lyrics and tells him try to write music for them. Thus, a 50-year magical partnership is born, with the heterosexual Bernie (Jamie Bell) providing the platonic love and acceptance that Reginald (who renames himself Elton John after a bandmate named Elton and John Lennon) never had before.
That friendship gives him newfound confidence, and soon they are on a rapid rise to worldwide fame and fortune. But Elton finds that material wealth doesn’t bring happiness, as he can’t seem to find a strong relationship while his fellow homosexual manager (Richard Madden) lures him into an affair that’s manipulative and shallow.
Continually rejected by his parents no matter how successful he becomes, Elton falls into a horrible cocaine and alcohol addiction. Through another of the movie’s innovative musical fantasies, Elton is seen symbolically engaged in a life of drug-fueled orgies that only end when he winds up overdosing and in need of rehab. From there, he has to find the way to true forgiveness, happiness and love.
As Elton, Egerton (“Eggsy” in “The Kingsman” movies) does a phenomenal job, setting himself up for an Oscar to match the one given to actor Rami Malek for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in “Rhapsody.” His performance is an emotional rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows, but is always underpinned by a heartbreaking wish for true acceptance and love.
Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin is also outstanding, and the movie’s depiction of their friendship is an excellent example of brotherly love that stands true through myriad crises. With 20 of Elton John’s greatest hits used in endlessly inventive musical numbers, the film is incredibly entertaining as well as a deeply emotional experience.
While much hype has been made of the fact that “Rocketman” sought an R rating and depicts Elton in gay sex scenes, the movie is actually pretty discreet and brief with these portrayals. Like “Rhapsody,” this is a film that teens and adults can easily enjoy together.
Stars: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers,
Length: 99 minutes
Directed by: Tate Taylor
The latest comedic horror film from the usually reliable Blumhouse (“Get Out,” “Split”) stars Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer as a mysterious small-town woman who invites teens to party in her house on the edge of town, but turns out to have malevolent intentions. The first half is pretty fun, but the last half hour’s logic collapses and the film becomes an ugly mess.
JOHN WICK 3: PARABELLUM
Stars: Keanu Reeves
Length: 131 minutes
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
The third time’s the charm, as Reeves returns as the world’s greatest hitman, dashing across New York while fighting off seemingly hundreds of assassins eager to take him down for a $14 million bounty. You really don’t even have to know the prior two films in the series to understand this – the movie has nearly wall to wall, brutal but nonetheless funny action. Grade: A
Stars: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever
Length: 102 minutes
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
This gender-flipped ripoff of 2007’s smash hit “Superbad” follows two brainiac girls trying to experience four years of partying in their final night before graduation. The actors are appealing talents mired in a cesspool of terrible behavior that is not only clichéd by now but tries to shred the envelope of good taste. Opening weekend bombed, so it’s clear that thankfully kids these days don’t relate to this. Grade: D
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM
Stars: John Chester, Molly Chester
Length: 91 minutes
Directed by: John Chester
This documentary focusing on a real-life couple who gave up cramped living in Santa Monica to restore seemingly dead land in Ventura County, and the eight-year process that resulted in a modern-day Garden of Eden, is absolutely riveting and stunning to behold. Highly recommended for the whole family. Grade: A
Stars: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen,
Length: 130 minutes
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
This romantic comedy has a lot more on its mind than the usual genre film, as Theron plays the US Secretary of State who hires Rogen – a journalist who’s been in love with her since junior high – as her speechwriter. As they travel the world facing both funny and serious crises, a smart romance that also deals with issues of personal ethics and compromise in a profound way unfolds. This is my favorite movie of the year so far.