Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: No (just families with older teens)
2019, 121 min., Color
Musical drama
Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen (enhanced)
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Amazon link

A year after Rami Malek channeled Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody and introduced a new young audience to Queen we get Rocketman, which attempts to do the same for Elton John.

Make that Sir Elton John, a musician whose first smash hit (“Your Song” in 1970) propelled him to a career so successful that he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, inducted into the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame, and named Billboard’s most successful male solo artist of all-time. In other words, he’s more than deserving of a biopic.

Make that a hybrid biopic—one that combines the rise (and stumble) of a musician with Broadway-style big production song-and-dance numbers that are imaginatively intercut into the film’s narrative, along with a backward-looking frame with younger alter ego that will remind some viewers of Birdman. Especially given the plume-like costume that Elton (Taron Egerton) wears to his therapy group as he recalls his former self. Is he really dressed that way, or is it a symbol or metaphor? There’s a surreal, glam-bam-thank-you-ma’am element to the film that seems very much in keeping with the real Elton John’s out-of-this-world performance persona—though the musician’s sexual orientation is treated matter-of-factly.

Director Bryan Singer says that John (born Reginald Dwight) told him early on that nothing about his life was off-limits. While that would have led some directors to springboard into the deep end of the pool, Singer opted for the hybrid format over sensationalism. Sex and sexual attraction are downplayed more in this film than they were in Bohemian Rhapsody, and even the drug scene could have been played more over the top than Singer chose to do it. It’s there, mind you, but really just another plot point on the stellar musician’s meteoric rise—from the child prodigy’s ability to instantly find the right notes on a piano and to reproduce exactly any music he hears, through his time as a teen playing with an R&B band, to his meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin. And it’s almost refreshing to see a 50-year songwriting partnership that isn’t accompanied by acrimony or high drama. Singer delivers a fascinating biography without going tabloid, one that’s made even more fascinating by the addition of those big song-and-dance numbers that pull you out of the narrative, and the flashbacks to the boy Reggie that help us to appreciate what John had to transcend in order to find himself and his musical self.

Like Malek, Egerton does a terrific job of getting to the heart of his character and aping the mannerisms that would help us forget he’s not the real thing. But unlike Malek, he does his own singing, both of the musician’s hits and those semi-intrusive Broadway numbers in which he pairs with co-stars. For the finale, he even gets a duet with Sir Elton. Other John numbers (like “I Want Love”) are performed by Egerton’s co-stars, and therein lies the big difference between Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody. In the latter, a Queen soundtrack flowed over everything; here, it’s all Broadway-style singing with some big dance numbers as well. And John’s songs are complemented by a period soundtrack that also includes Elvis, Cliff Richard, Stan Getz, and Ricky Nelson,

The whole cast is marvelous, but Jamie Bell strikes the right tone as Taupin and Matthew Illesley and Kit Conner deserve props as younger versions of John. So do Steven Mackintosh and Bryce Dallas Howard as the parents who deliver very understated British tongue-in-cheek humor all the way—though the film as a whole is pretty over the top. Some will like that, while others will wish that Singer had stayed a little closer to the narrative style of the typical biopic. Singer scoots past the story of how John and Taupin answered the same ad looking for songwriters and that how Liberty Records paired them together. And there really isn’t much emphasis on the actual act of collaboration. It’s implied that Taupin handed John a fully-formed lyric each time and then John set them to music.

Maybe there wasn’t more to say about the process, but this and other biographical details seem to get sacrificed in the interest of that Broadway-style approach. For some, that will be a negative. For others, it will be what sends Rocketman into a universe all its own. It’s visually and musically stunning, and bonus features include extended musical sequences, 10 deleted/extended songs, plus a sing-along option. The one odd —or rather, oddly sized—bonus feature is a 12-page booklet the same size as the exterior dimensions of the Blu-ray case, so it can’t be stored inside. The booklet is “A special message from Elton John for fans of ROCKETMAN” promoting his forthcoming autobiography, Let Me Tell You a Story (October 15, 2019). In it, John admits to being the world’s worst lyricist (“We could be such a happy pair, and I promise to do my share”) and says, “There are times when Bernie’s written lyrics from my point of view, and he’s expressed how I felt better than I could.” No wonder he gave Singer free rein.

Language: The primary reason for the R rating, rough language includes around 30 uses of the f-word, one semi-comic use of the c-word, as well as lesser swearwords and homophobic slurs 

Sex: Though John confesses in the film to being a sex addict, nothing much is shown; he kisses another man several times (once in bed with both men shirtless), he’s seen stripped but shown from the side; that’s it, and there’s a fully clothed “orgy”, apart from another implied sex scene between a man and woman and, if you’re really looking for it, a topless woman in the background in one concert scene, that’s it 

Violence: One punch in the face and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bar fight played for laughs

Adult situations: John is shown using cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol, though he mentions having tried “every drug known to man”

Takeaway: You have to wonder if the lyric half of this songwriting team might not get more appreciable notice now because of this film. Would John have risen to such heights without him?