This story of how Reginald Kenneth Dwight of England became legendary piano-man Sir Elton Hercules John in what can only be described as a two-hour music video selfie. Think of Bohemian Rhapsody mixed with Mamma Mia!
Just like 2018’s, Bohemian Rhapsody, we bear witness to the rise and fall (and subsequent rise again) of a nobody musician/singer from Middlesex, England. Crashing an AA meeting at a rehab center in NYC and wearing a ridiculous horned red-winged chicken-thingy costume, Elton John (Taron Egerton) proceeds to spill his guts to the others there about his past. All told in a sort of odd music-video flashback format, where patches of his life are interrupted in flashy, over-the-top, choreographed song ‘n’ dance numbers of Elton’s best hits.
Growing up sucks for young piano prodigy Reggie Dwight (Kit Conner–who resembles TV’s Young Sheldon). His dad (Steven Mackintosh) is a heartless, unfeeling bloke, his ice-cold mum (Bryce Dallas Howard) barely notices his talent, but at least his grandma (Gemma Jones) loves him and nurtures his adept skills. Reginald grows up a closeted gay man, gets piano-playing gigs here and there, changes his name to Elton John, and then meets his life-long friend & writing partner, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), a genius lyricist. Together they get noticed by the powerful Dick James Publishing house and manager Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe), who believes in Elton.
After an important gig at the Troubadour Club in Hollywood, Elton’s star begins to rise, along with his outrageous choices in fashion, footwear, and his never-ending array of stylized eyeglasses. It’s there that Elton meets super-handsome and classy music manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), whom the pair hit it off immediately and, in the film’s most controversial scene, spend a torrid night of hot guy-on-guy action together. But, like in practically every bio-pic ever made about musicians, here’s the part where the superstar crashes and burns.
Yes, it’s your A-typical act two scenario: unbelievable wealth from gigantic record sales and tours, followed by drugs, alcohol, a reckless lifestyle, missed concert dates, suicide attempts, yadda-yadda-yadda. Elton ruins his life, loses his friends and family, his fake marriage to a young woman fizzles, but finally he turns his life around in the end as the film concludes showing us that the REAL Elton John is doing just fine, thank you very much.
Screenwriter Lee Hall, mostly noted for his many stage plays and the Broadway musical/screenplay Billy Elliot, must’ve seen all the other rock bio-pic’s (The Doors, Walk The Line, Stoned, Love and Mercy and, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody) because they all follow the same ol’, same ‘ol playbook. If this were a fictionalized movie, I’d say it was clichéd, boring, and that the writer had NO imagination! But as it stands (and with John’s blessing, no less), this account of his early life, rise to stardom, subsequent fall into alcohol & drug abuse, then climb back up seems all very “been there, seen that”. Which we have. Many times.
The only thing making this movie interesting is Dexter Fletcher’s (Bugsy Malone, Wild Bill) smart and well executed direction. Name familiar? He replaced fired director Bryan Singer on Bohemian Rhapsody! This must’ve been a cake-walk for him… it’s literally the same movie! Another plus is that fact that Taron Egerton did all his own singing in this movie–no lip syncing! And his performance is excellent as Elton, as is Jamie Bell as Taupin. The costumes are incredible and, if you lived back in the age of Elton John (like I did), you’ll remember his ultra-flamboyant feather and sequined nightmarish garb he wore, making him look quite silly, and those are painstakingly recreated here.
With all the quality acting, direction, choreography, singing, and costuming, you’d expect this movie to be something special, but when it all comes down to it, it’s just another bio-pic that, honestly, didn’t have to be made. In fact, it’s not so much a bio-pic, but more like a musical or that hokey mish-mash movie, Mamma Mia! On that level, it does resonate and has some dynamic, but take that aspect away and the bio part becomes tedious, dull, and ordinary.
Great Balls Of Fire! (1989)
Not quite as flamboyant and much more controversial is piano man Jerry Lee Lewis, who lit up the stage back in the late 50’s and early 60’s with his undeniable charm, outrageous piano playing, and off-stage antics that earned him the nickname “The Killer”. Dennis Quaid plays the rocker as he lip-syncs his famous songs.
We first see young Jerry Lee and his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin) sneaking over to a black jazz club where, apparently, Jerry got his inspiration. Then we cut to Jerry Lee playing the piano as an adult (Dennis Quaid) and it’s thrilling, mad-cap, like a man possessed. But the movie digresses as we see the meteoric rise of Lewis from his humble beginnings to his screaming, jumping, and piano-stool throwin’ days. Not to mention his infamous marrying to his 13-year-old first-cousin! Yeah, he did that.
His biggest fan, Myra Gale Brown (Winona Ryder) is just 13 when the two get hitched and try to keep it a secret. Her parents are (naturally) incensed, but let’s face it, when your son-in-law is one of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll stars of the days (right up there with Elvis), you go with it. Meanwhile, Lewis’ fame rises with such antics as playing at the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn, New York and famously lighting his piano on fire while playing. This was to drive the audience crazy AND to piss off Chuck Berry.
Ah, but with all rock ‘n’ roll bio-pic’s the house of cards must come crashing down at some point, right? And at the point of his success, Lewis opens his big mouth in England while touring and mentions his marriage. Boom! His tour gets cancelled, the news gets spread like it went viral, and his record sales plummet. Refusing to apologize for his actions and believing this is a minor set-back, Lewis retreats to the bottle and sinks to his lowest. Thankfully, his wife (who informs him she’s now pregnant! Yikes!) and one of Jimmy Swaggart’s heart-felt sermons pulls his out of his funk to perform again and go back on tour where, amazingly, all is forgiven and he’s loved & adored by millions. Puke.
Based on the scathing tell-all book by ex-wife Myra Lewis, the script by Jack Baran (The Big Easy) and director Jim McBride (Breathless) decided to fashion a screenplay that wasn’t anywhere near the truth, according to Jerry Lee Lewis who outright HATED this movie. Sanitized, candy-coated, and cleaned-up, this movie resembles an SNL skit, with some over-the-top performances and wild caricatures. Even though Lewis gave his okay to Quaid playing him, he refused to have Quaid sing for him and re-recorded all the music for Quaid to lip-sync to. Quaid, on the other hand, really, really got into his character of Lewis with all swagger, head-tossing, and piano-playing craziness that Lewis is known for. He mugs it up SO much you’d swear he’s making fun of Lewis for some reason.
Still, it does one thing going for it; the terrific music of Jerry Lee Lewis. Great Balls of Fire, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On, High School Confidential, Breathless, and more. The man could not only sing and play the hell out of that piano, but put on a show as well. No, he didn’t put on wacky clothing, goofy sunglasses, or wear gigantic plumes of feathers to get the crowd pumped, he just played and played hard. This movie, while a joke to many, does have some small measure of honesty to it, and it lies in the music. And music never lies.