“For as long as I can remember I’ve hated myself,” declares Taron Egerton, perfectly channeling Elton John’s voice and mannerisms during the extended group therapy session that’s the framing device for Dexter Fletcher’s moving and joyful fantasy biopic. “Maybe I should have tried to be more ordinary.”
Kicking off with John dressed as a giant winged and horned demon, barreling in and declaring himself an alcoholic, who’s also addicted to cocaine, sex and prescription drugs, Rocketman is definitely not ordinary. In fact, in many ways, it’s the film Bohemian Rhapsody opted not to be – unsanitised, weird, outrageous, sexy and emotional – and it’s all the better for that.
Charting John’s rise to success from young musical prodigy whose given name was Reggie Dwight, through his legendary partnership with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), disastrous romantic relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden) and eventual addiction and breakdown, key moments in John’s life are punctuated and illustrated with musical numbers.
Egerton sings all the songs and he’s terrific, a bristling ball of energy one minute, a tortured soul the next. Rather than the diegetic renditions which Rhapsody opts for, Rocketman’s numbers form part of the storytelling. A tweaked rendition of ‘I Want Love’ shared between the Dwight family (which actually doesn’t quite work) reflects young Reggie’s troubled relationship with his distant father; a duet of ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ beautifully shorthands an entire significant relationship in John’s life; a psychedelic, orgiastic version of ‘Bennie And The Jets’ thrillingly charts John’s descent into hell and the bizarre, brilliant, multi-layered ‘Rocketman’ centrepiece sums up the heart of the movie in one bravura extended sequence.
Mixing styles and genres, fantasy elements, appropriately elaborate costumes and big-ticket choreography, these numbers absolutely soar. In fact, in the first act, where they’re used more sparsely than later, you’ll find yourself properly craving the next tune.
It serves to remind you what a musical genius John is, but while most of his best-known hits are accounted for – sometimes only with a few bars – this is way more than a jukebox movie.
At its core it’s the story of a misfit who never felt accepted by his family, masking his loneliness with excess. Yes, it’s a story about Elton John but the ace up Rocketman’s massive spangled sleeve is how incredibly relatable it is. John might be a millionaire megastar but there’s an emotional message here about forgiveness, friendship and being comfortable with who you are which applies to anyone who didn’t try to be more ordinary. Like all the best biopics, Rocketman has a clear theme and focus – it’s not a birth-to-the-present chronology – indeed John’s husband David Furnish, who is one of the producers on the movie, doesn’t even feature other than in the closing ‘what happened next’ captions.
Fletcher has worked with Egerton before on Eddie The Eagle and they clearly bring out the best in each other. In fact, Rocketman could be likened to that surprisingly heart-warming ski-jumper biopic in that the action is true to the spirit, rather than the literal letter of the truth. And as with Eddie’s vertiginous ski jump shots, Rocketman is packed with cinematic flourishes.
At times fantastical and experimental, it’s the performances that really make this work. Madden’s Reid (the same character played by Aidan Gillen in Bohemian Rhapsody) is seductive and cruel, Bryce Dallas Howard as Reggie’s mum is brassy and cold, while Jamie Bell’s Taupin brings a softness and warmth that stops the movie from ever feeling too dark or self-reflexive. Indeed, with a screenplay from Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall, Rocketman may well be remembered in the same breath as that feel good classic.
Dancing a fine line between soul-searching and toe-tapping, Rocketman is a difficult film not to fall for. At times it’s a little bit uneven and some scenes in the therapy-room are a bit on the nose, but it’s hard not to forgive a film as good-hearted and uplifting as this. Rocketman takes risks that pay off in a movie that’s as colourful, complicated, creative and larger than life as its subject. Not just another musical, in a time when the genre is having a full resurgence, Rocketman embraces its differences and burns all the brighter for it.
Rocketman opens in UK cinemas on 22 May.