Bruce Steele: You'd think two movies about gay British rock stars from the 1970s and '80s directed in part by the same guy would be pretty similar, but Rocketman couldn't be more different from Bohemian Rhapsody. Did you think it’s an improvement?
Edwin Arnaudin: In nearly every possible regard, yes. Among other successes, the filmmaking, handling of the creative process, and performances — especially Taron Egerton as Elton John — are all upgrades, while its R-rating and lack of, uh, band over-interference gives screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) the freedom tell a more edgy and honest story. Were you similarly impressed?
Bruce: Very much. Rocketman is more akin to Mamma Mia! or Broadway's Beautiful — using an artist's song catalog to build a break-into-song musical story — than to Rhapsody's "Behind the Music" hagiography. But at the same time it's a much deeper delve into its main character. As soon as 9-year-old Elton (then named Reggie) starts singing "The Bitch Is Back" in a dance number with the neighbors, you know you're in for some inventive visions.
Edwin: And unlike Mamma Mia!, they’re rarely corny. Not only do the song selections fit each current mood, action, and character psychology, but they’re enacted with fun choreography and captured via an active camera. I honestly could have done with a few more of them.
Bruce: True. The second half of the movie, in which Elton descends into alcoholism and drug abuse, could have used one or two well-chosen musical numbers — in addition to its lovely take on “Rocket Man” — to raise the flagging energy level. But Egerton himself never flags, and Jamie Bell makes for a nicely grounded Bernie Taupin — Elton’s own Jiminy Cricket. The flipside is Elton’s self-centered mom, Sheila, played with delightful indignation by a nearly unrecognizable Bryce Dallas Howard. Some of the early scenes with little Reggie and his emotionally absent dad (Steven Macintosh) reminded me of Pink Floyd: The Wall — in a good way.
Edwin: Considering the Pinball Wizard's involvement in the best part of Ken Russell’s Tommy, I thought there might be more thematic and/or stylistic overlaps here, but both films and The Wall nonetheless make for an intriguing trinity of the post-WWII British psyche. I’m with you on the addiction component, too. We’ve seen it so many times in biopics and films in general, and while seemingly true to life, they almost always bog down the flow and are rarely, if ever, presented in a creative manner.
Bruce: I was hoping Rocketman would get us through that period more quickly and offer at least a summary sequence that established Elton's creative burst post sobriety, with The Lion King, Las Vegas, et al — not to mention his happy marriage to David Furnish. But no, the movie is set up as strictly a story about recovery and dealing with past traumas — something made clear from the framing device, which has a peak-1970s Elton addressing an addiction therapy group. Fortunately Elton's downer of a life is brightened throughout by Bernie.
Edwin: I also loved the Elton-Bernie dynamic. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody’s simplistic presentation of iconic songs’ creations, Hall and director Dexter Fletcher smartly lay out the artists' individual strengths and working relationship so that when Elton sits down at a piano and within a minute crafts the melody and instrumentation for “Your Song,” there’s little reason to question the process. Did you also find this aspect respectful?
Bruce: The "Your Song" sequence is brilliant. I wouldn't have wanted Fletcher to copy Rhapsody's endless "let's write a hit" formula, but Rocketman could have paid a little more attention to Elton's amazing output through the plot as well as the musical numbers. I loved the use of "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" as a transitional dance number between teen and adult Elton and of "Tiny Dancer" to express Elton's loneliness at a Hollywood party, for example, but after "Your Song," there's barely an acknowledgement of any specific album or newly written song. The movie becomes largely detached from cultural history in a way that Rhapsody was not.
Edwin: The film certainly becomes more about Elton’s life than his music, albeit told through the music, so the hits are thankfully present on a regular basis. Your point about The Lion King is a great one, and I wouldn’t have minded a Live Aid number (which would have been a fun nod to/dig at Fletcher’s 2018 directorial rescue job) or the Princess Diana reworking of “Candle in the Wind” — though too many additions risk resulting in a bloated overall product. While “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” would have been a bit on the nose in a few spots, I was hoping to hear “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Levon." Were there songs you thought would be included, or moments where you flat out expected a certain tune to appear?
Bruce: Given the movie's time frame, it actually covers every appropriate tune from my personal "Elton's 30 Best" playlist. I understand why Fletcher chose the closing number he did, but the incorporation of a low-resolution video from the 1980s at the climax was a real creative failure, in my opinion. I would have rather heard "The One" or something from "The Lion King," signaling Elton's early 1990s renaissance — but again, that would have required rethinking the movie's chosen destination. But enough wishing and whining: Overall, I both enjoyed the movie and fully respected its brave depiction of Elton's sexuality and struggle with addiction. Most important, I loved the musical numbers. Have we mentioned the magical "Crocodile Rock" at L.A.'s Troubadour concert? Delightful. The movie's not perfect, but I'm ready to see it again. I'll give it a B-plus.
Edwin: As we discussed outside the theater, Rocketman invites a revisit — an even more appealing prospect now that we know the story being told and can better accept it for what it is, not judge it what we might want it to be. Much as I enjoy the wealth of still-potent songs, Egerton’s performance, and the frequent bursts of imagination, the addiction chapter and framing device plus some other heavy-handed and borderline cheesy moments have me slightly less enthusiastic about the first viewing than you are, but just barely. I give it a strong B and will happily return to the theater, perhaps for the likely singalong version.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Playing at AMC River Hills, Carolina Cinemark, and Regal Biltmore Grande.
(Photos: Paramount Pictures)