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Movie Review: 'Rocketman' Celebrates Elton John's Music Without Elton John Singing

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One of the most creative things Billy Joel has ever done is Movin' Out, the jukebox musical celebrating the creative genius of Billy Joel. Remember its 2002-05 Broadway run? Way to get paid all over again without writing a single new tune, dude. It was such an attractive business model that Bruce Springsteen decided to give his regards to the Great White Way, too, in 2017.

A residency in Vegas serves virtually the same function, and Elton John enjoyed a winning streak at Caesars Palace from 2011 to 2018. So I suppose you've got to give him credit for figuring out a way to get paid for the same songs a third time: Rocketman, the jukebox musical film celebrating the creative genius of John and Bernie Taupin (though mostly John).

Directed by Dexter Fletcher (Bohemian Rhapsody) and written by Lee Hall, the picture is almost as frustrating as it is flashy. Taron Egerton plays the recording artist and provides his own vocals on the songs, which is maybe the most frustrating thing about the film.

Rami Malek only pretended to sing Freddie Mercury's songs. Every note in Bohemian Rhapsody was the real thing. The thing the movie was made to celebrate. So it's curiously self-defeating that this celebration of Elton John's songs doesn't include Elton John's singing.

Adding to that frustration is the movie's identity crisis. I don't mean the transmogrification of Middlesex 9-year-old Reginald Dwight into the Liberace on steroids who conquered the pop world in the '70s. I mean the movie's all-over-the-place, fast-and-loose chronicle of that odyssey.

As one of the film's executive producers, John has admitted it isn't a biopic. So what exactly is it? On one hand, we watch a piano prodigy from a troubled home grow into a young man struggling to understand his sexuality, form a fortuitous songwriting partnership, and attain astronomical fame and riches. On the other, Hall's screenplay tosses music history out the window — along with a great many of the story's key players. (Sorry, everybody in the Elton John Band, whoever you are.)

The performer's greatest hits are deployed with a fealty to chronology that's anything but great. The cast repeatedly bursts into La La Land-reminiscent song and dance to mark a milestone in the artist's development, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a given tune didn't exist when the scene is set. In the movie, John kicks off his 1970 U.S. debut at the Troubadour, for example, with "Crocodile Rock." He actually wrote it three years later. Ditto with "Honky Cat," "Daniel" and any number of numbers.

John calls the film a "fantasia." I'm not sure what that means. Maybe that as an homage to a pop god famous for addictive riffs and outrageous outfits, it's exempt from the expectations of cinema; it's so special and magical, the usual rules don't apply.

If that's the case, I should point out:

The script is a hoard of showbiz clichés, and the tone ping-pongs between self-satisfaction and self-pity. John teased interviewers with promises of same-sex debauchery, but the film could probably air on Nickelodeon. And the singer still hasn't explained why he wanted a non-pop god to do the singing.

Enjoy the Taron Egerton Show. It's mildly entertaining in places, but did you really come to bask in his glory? Fear not. You'll likely get another chance to do the jukebox thing with John. He's been talking about, yup, bringing Rocketman to Broadway.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Rocketman"

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Related Film

Rocketman

Official Site: www.paramount.com/movies/rocketman

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones and Bryce Dallas Howard

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