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REVIEW: Rocketman Soars With an Oscar-Worthy Lead Performance

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The Elton John "true fantasy" movie Rocketman is a buoyant, charming telling of rather dark and heavy story about addiction and self-loathing. The film is unafraid to be campy yet avoids being cheesy, forgoing what could have been a conventional (and boring) rock star biopic in favor of an expressionist musical fantasia. It can be a bit tiring towards the end, as the "fall" in these sort of "rise and fall" narratives often can feel exhausting as the high of the "rise" ends, but Rocketman is never boring, and its highs are utterly infectious.

Dexter Fletcher was the guy who was originally set to direct Bohemian Rhapsody, replaced by Bryan Singer when his vision was deemed too dark, then brought in to finish filming the movie at the last minute when Singer's unprofessionalism and personal problems threatened to sink the whole production. Rocketman is Fletcher's passion project through and through, and with Elton's full approval, he's gotten the chance to do a full R-rated story that doesn't have to tone down the sex, drugs and rock 'n roll.

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Taron Egerton previously co-starred with Elton John in Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Kingsman director Matthew Vaughn produced Rocketman through his Marv Films studio). His triple-threat performance as Elton in Rocketman is almost guaranteed to earn him his first Oscar nom. Not only is his acting great, but he sounds almost just like the real Elton when he sings, and his experience with action movie choreography lends itself to elaborate dance sequences.

Musicals and music-based dramas, along with horror films, have become the only genres outside of the four-quadrant blockbuster tentpoles to consistently convince adult audiences to leave their houses and go to the cinemas. Rocketman is one of the best movie musicals in recent years, and makes the most of the big-screen experience. There are 21 classic songs on the soundtrack (plus an original duet, "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again" over the credits). A few are traditional performances or background music, but many are brought to life in stunningly creative ways.

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This movie doesn't go through Elton's discography chronologically, opting instead to select songs based on the emotional impact of the scenes. The film's framing device is of Elton attending an AA meeting and recounting his life story, giving said tale a subjectivity and a grounding in emotional truth rather than the literal facts. "I Want Love" becomes an illustration of the sadness of every member of his dysfunctional family. "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" transports us from his teen to adult years in a single take dance number. "Crocodile Rock" makes the audience levitate, "Pinball Wizard" flings us around in time and space, and the movie's title song gets the most haunting treatment of all.

It's one of the less stylized musical scenes, however, that's already claiming a place in the history books. The press is saying "Take Me to the Pilot" sequence, in which Elton gets it on with his future manager John Reid (played by Game of Thrones' Richard Madden), is the first gay male sex scene in a wide release movie from one of the six major studio labels (the likes of Midnight Cowboy and Brokeback Mountain came from either smaller studios or arthouse labels). We're not sure if that's entirely accurate (Brüno was released by Universal), but "first consensual gay male sex scene in a studio film that's not treated as a joke" is still both a mighty impressive feat and weirdly sad that it took this long to get a film like this one.

The movie handles Elton's struggles with his sexuality with sensitivity. One particularly heartbreaking sequence involves him trying to come out to his parents. He can't even do it with his unloving father, while his mother expects it but doesn't accept it. His fear of not being loved leads him to stick with Reid, a partner who doesn't really love him back, for longer than he should have. It also inspires an impulsive marriage to producer Renate Blauel that in this film seems to end almost immediately after it begins (it was four years in real life, but the passage of time is a drugged out blur for Rocketman's second half).

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The one true love story in the film isn't a romantic one, but rather the intense friendship between Elton and his songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Bernie is straight, but accepts Elton for himself. Of course, there are many questions about who Elton Hercules John even is; how much of the over-the-top stage persona created by a prodigy from Pinner named Reginald Dwight is genuine, and how much is a defensive mechanism? When Bernie leaves Elton, the song choice is obvious ("Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"), but no less emotionally effective.

While it wisely doesn't try to cover Elton's entire life, instead finding a happy ending with him making amends with Taupin and going sober in the early '90s, Rocketman does have a lot of material to cover. It can be a messy and unwieldy film in its attempt to cover so much, but it never burns out its fuse. Its commitment to tell its story in such an inventive and entertaining way has to be applauded. Hopefully audiences who want something different from both normal biopics and the blockbuster competition will reward its ambition.

Rocketman opens in theaters May 31.

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