‘Rocketman’ Launch: Elton John Musical Biopic Blasts Off In World Premiere That Lights Up Cannes

“Even if the movie doesn’t make one penny — which will kill Jim Gianopulos — it is the movie I wanted to make, and that doesn’t happen often,” said no one other than Elton John on Thursday as he proceeded to sing his signature “I’m Still Standing” at the Carlton Beach after-party for the world premiere of the movie all about himself, Rocketman. Paramount chose the 72nd Cannes Film Festival to launch its big summer hope, and if reaction with a seven-minute standing ovation was any indication, it is a hit.

Gianopulos, the Paramount chairman, was certainly enthusiastic when I caught up with him at the party. He noted that star Taron Egerton, who gives the first performance I have seen in 2019 guaranteed to be an Oscar contender, actually used Elton’s classic “Your Song” as an audition to get into his drama school. He was clearly fated to play Sir Elton from that moment on, even if Tom Hardy was once touted for the role in which he planned to lip sync to John’s original tracks. Thank god that didn’t happen — Egerton is the real deal as Elton.

Gianopulos also noted that the studio was happy to go along with the movie Elton wanted to make, even if some scenes sent it into R-rated territory — and that included a tastefully shot sex sequence between Egerton and Richard Madden as his manager and onetime fling John Reid. Reid, by the way, was nowhere in sight in Cannes last night, but after a six-month period in which he also came off poorly as Queen’s manager in Bohemian Rhapsody, I would stay away too.  “Maybe in 10 years we will do something about him,” Madden laughed as I pointed out the recent influx of Reid portrayals on screen.

It is not always easy to play someone still living and do them justice, but Egerton is, in a word, remarkable in the role in which he sensationally does all his own singing. That’s right, no lip syncing as Rami Malek did in Bohemian Rhapsody and still won the Best Actor Oscar. Egerton sounds like Elton but also fully captures the rock star’s spirit and passion in his interpretations of that immortal songbook. It may be the best musical performance since Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-winning turn as Loretta Lynn in 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter. Malek and Jamie Foxx in Ray were terrific, but they were helped by using the original tracks of the iconic star they played. Egerton is working without a net and succeeds brilliantly not only in the numerous musical sequences but also in this highly dramatic story that dares not to portray John as a saint, but rather a man who was — as the opening scene in an AA meeting depicts — addicted to just about every bad substance and thing you could be addicted to. John’s husband David Furnish was one of the producers and he told me it was a long road to get it made but was the version they wanted to see on the screen.

Dexter Fletcher, who replaced Bryan Singer on the troubled production of the Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody and shot about 20% of the finished film, told me he made a musical in this instance and that is exactly what it is — not a musical biopic but rather a full-blooded musical with stunning numbers set around John’s vast catalog. It just works spectacularly, especially as it doesn’t travel the usual linear path of most showbiz biopics. If the big musical numbers were eliminated, John’s torturous history in his early life and career would be closer to the kind of showbiz biopics Susan Hayward did in the ’50s like I’ll Cry Tomorrow or With a Song In My Heart — so much drama you would want to slit your wrist.

It is surprising how much of John’s life is almost the stuff of such sadness and angst, but in writer Lee Hall’s and Fletcher’s hands in Rocketman it never feels like anything less than emotionally authentic and real, a life lesson that is ultimately inspiring. It is an impressive achievement all around and hopefully the middle of the country won’t be scared way by media reports of a “gay sex scene.” It is refreshing to see someone who made no compromises in letting his story be told. This film is the real deal and should be warmly embraced. The ending is an upper if ever there was one. Elton John is “still standing.”

As for John’s opinion of Egerton’s portrayal? “When I watch the movie I don’t see an actor playing me, I see myself, ” he said at the after-party before introducing Egerton to duet on the title song and first single from the soundtrack. He added that he thinks he is so good he could actually be “the next Aquaman.” Finally, we have a bona fide Oscar contender in a year that has been very slow to produce one, anyone, so far. Egerton simply rocks as Elton John, and the supporting cast is also terrific including Madden, Jamie Bell (absent from Cannes due to the pending birth of his child) as his writing partner Bernie Taupin (who was in Cannes for the premiere) and a startlingly different Bryce Dallas Howard as his mother. I didn’t even recognize her.

I will be reviewing Rocketman in more detail the week it hits theaters May 31, but suffice to say this is a Cannes premiere that should resonate, especially if you go by the number of likes and retweets I have gotten to my one little tweet at the end of the gala screening.

Cannes needed a film like this, and it got one.

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