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Rocketman

At the Cinemark

(R)

Grade: A-

In baseball, players are greeted with a personally-chosen “walk up” song when coming to the plate.

I suspect each of us needs our own signature walk-up song.

Mine might well be Elton John’s “Rocketman,” released in 1972.

In the 70s, I decided to hitchhike from Houston, Texas, to Hudson’s Bay, Canada. (1. Yes, hitchhike. 2. Because it’s there. 3. I made it … without a hitch.)

I spent hours sitting on roads wondering if I’d get a ride. During one of those lonely stretches, hoping to be picked up, the music of Elton John floated through my head.

“And I think it's gonna be a long long time .…”

I long ago cut my long hair, sold my Harley 1200 and quit hitchhiking. I can fake respectability pretty well now, but we baby boomers have our secrets.

Whenever life puts challenges in front me, I still find myself wondering whether somebody – anybody - is going to gift me a lift. In times of struggle, I often hum the same line.

“And I think it's gonna be a long long time …”

Elton John is a British icon who started playing piano at age 3 and was admitted to the Royal Academy of Music at 11.

In 2018 Billboard magazine crowned Elton John as the top performing male solo artist of all time – just ahead of Elvis, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney.

For the record, the female list is topped by Madonna, then Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Rihanna.

Last year’s major musical biopic was “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which won four Oscars and was nominated Best Film.

I suspect the Elton John film will not end up being as wildly popular as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” even though in most ways Dexter Fletcher’s “Rocketman” is the better film.

The Freddie Mercury flick opened with $69 million, dwarfing the $25 million by “Rocketman.” (Fletcher actually finished making “Rhapsody” when director Bryan Singer was fired.)

“Rhapsody” had electric concert scenes, but an uneven portrait of the singer as a gay man. By contrast “Rocketman” is much more honest about Elton John’s gay life, but Taron Egerton’s concert scenes – while engaging - aren’t as rapturous as Rami Malek’s sold-out solos. 

“Rocketman” takes creative risks that may distance some moviegoers.

The film is virtually a musical, almost an opera. The cast bursts into song, almost like a flash mob taking over the mall.

Instead of lengthy dialogue, lyrics provide context.

The script doesn’t hesitate to chronicle the dark, sad side of his life – his rejection by his parents, his manipulation by his manager and his deep dive into chemical abuse.

His struggle with his sexual identity is told honestly even explicitly, including his brief marriage to a close female friend (sound engineer Renate Blauel), an ultimately failed experiment in hetero-connectivity.

He met David Furnish in 1993. They’ve been together 25 years. One writer crowned them the model for a successful gay marriage, complete with two surrogate sons, long-term stability and open public pride for all the world to see.

“We need more people to come forward and be proud of who they are,” said Furnish in a recent interview.

These same gay themes were explored in “Rhapsody,” but that film never fully answered charges of “straight-washing.”

Egerton does a subtle job of capturing the contradictions swirling inside Elton John.

Reginald Kenneth Dwight is presented as a somewhat shy, insecure young genius, who evolved into an ostentatious showman with outrageous costumes and epic eyeglasses. Inside, he remained in turmoil including suicide attempts and depression. He wanted, but never received, unconditional love from family. That left a hole inside nothing truly filled.

The film is produced and embraced by Elton John, who has toured with Egerton. They even sang a duet of “Rocketman” at the Cannes premiere.

I’ve written this review while listening to a wonderful 2002 Elton John concert, one not featured in the film.

In that 2002 concert, Elton John returned to his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music for a fundraiser with the student orchestra. The joy of the student musicians on stage is contagious. One violinist threw her head back and smiled as her bow flew across the strings.

Elton John, 72, has reasons to be bitter about his life - the sun almost went down on him. But, instead of dwelling on regret, Elton John is giving back.

He hopes today’s youth won’t have to wait as long as he did for love and acceptance.

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