Elton John's success is due to possessing talent and showmanship in equal measure. He has recorded dozens and dozens of brilliant songs, and used outrageous fashion choices to create a sense of anything-goes fun. Some artists have talent, but are boring to watch. Others can put on a show, but don't have stellar musical chops. He's got both. Rocketman is a self-described “musical fantasy” about Elton's early years up through the early '80s. Appropriately and pleasingly, it takes an over-the-top approach to telling his story.
Taron Egerton plays Elton, and the film charts his humble beginnings as Reggie Dwight, a piano prodigy with an unloving father (Steven Mackintosh) and a hard-driving mother, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard). From there, he meets lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), with whom he forms a fruitful professional collaboration; becomes one of the biggest musical artists in the world; gets into drugs and alcohol; enters an abusive relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden); and nearly flushes his entire career down the drain before deciding to get his act together.
Rocketman opens with Elton showing up for a 12-step meeting wearing a feathered devil costume with massive horns. That's the first cue that it's not going to be a conventional biopic. Musical numbers showcasing many of his most beloved songs are used to signify important moments or transitions in his life. Elton's entrance into a lifestyle of drugs and opulence, for example, is set to the tune of “Honky Cat.” Another imaginative sequence has the camera rapidly swirling around him, his costumes changing every couple revolutions, as he belts out “Pinball Wizard” to sold-out crowds. All of these rousing, energetic scenes are smoothly woven into the story so that they serve the plot, rather than feeling like an excuse to have a song.
The film's overall arc is that Elton was not loved by his dad and told by his mother that he would “never be loved properly.” That causes him to hate himself and, in turn, create the outrageous stage persona the world came to love. It also propels him into self-destruction. Elton John is, of course, a man whose life and career could fuel a dozen biopics. Rocketman is smart to pick one lane to focus on. Doing so provides a sense of coherence, as opposed to some movies that try to cram in absolutely everything about their subject and therefore feel scattershot.
The single greatest key to the film's success is Taron Egerton. He looks uncannily like the young Elton John, and he can sing too. The actor nicely balances Elton's larger-than-life personality with the wounded soul inside, so that we understand how the latter drives the former. Forgetting that you're watching a performance is easy; Egerton fits naturally into the role, providing the picture with a vital emotional core.
Rocketman was directed by Dexter Fletcher, the man brought in to replace Bryan Singer halfway through production of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. This time, he gets to fulfill his own stylish, empathetic vision from start to finish. Consequently, Rocketman is admiring of Elton John as both a musician and as a man who overcame a multitude of personal demons.
The music is obviously great, too. When done right, music biopics are enjoyable, foot-tapping celebrations of someone who gave magic to the world. Rocketman is done right.
out of four
Rocketman is rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minute.