Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; a new film tracks the meteoric rise of a rock icon from humble origins to celestial godhood, and along the way he’ll learn lessons about self-worth, self-destruction, and just how to get over his damn self. Sure enough this weekend’s Rocketman, the Elton John biopic, checks all those boxes and more in its depiction of the rise and initial drug-fueled fall of ‘70s pop’s reigning bespectacled prince, but then it also goes a bit further too, sprinkling just enough fairy dust to actually sparkle. While having literal, shared creative tissue with Bohemian Rhapsody via director Dexter Fletcher, Rocketman is also a shimmering love letter to the Pinball Wizard that mixes its pop jukebox with pop psychology. It’s no deeper than either, but it really does pop.
Every bit a standard bearer for the Dewey Cox playbook, what makes Rocketman sing beyond Taron Egerton’s actual vocals being utilized on-screen is the fact it is a genuine musical in addition to being a musical biopic. For every generic montage of Elton on tour or reaching for a handful of pills, there is a stylish and singular sequence in which as a teenager, Reggie Dwight (Elton’s real name), is already singing “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” while being chased by back-up dancers through a carnival, or moments of symphonic bliss when as an adult he imagines his boyhood self at the bottom of a swimming pool, mumbling beneath a space helmet the first verses of “Rocketman.” It’s in the musical flourishes where Rocketman lifts off from its boilerplate foundation.
As a narrative though, the film is pretty straightforward. Instead of being wrapped around Elton remembering his life before a monumental concert, the film begins and ends with an already wildly beloved musician strutting out of a Madison Square Garden show that he’s supposed to be playing and into a support group for addiction. What’s bedeviling Elton is as subtle as the demonic rock star horns and fiery red sunglasses he’s wearing, but then this man was never one for subtlety on the stage, nor is he on film. Recalling his childhood and early success to the rest of the group, the rock star speaks of his youth as Reggie (where he’s remarkably well played by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor) and how a shy background musician had a life-altering meeting with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). The two’s collaboration would lead to some of rock’s greatest songs.
Along the way he is literally seduced by Scottish music manager John Reid (Richard Madden) and metaphorically by a rock star lifestyle via the vices that come with fame. Yet it’s when Egerton’s Elton literally floats off the ground during the hypnotic reverie of “Crocodile Rock”—and his audience floats with him—that shows Rocketman can overcome the feet of clay endured by its peers.
This movie features a remarkable duality with last year’s Oscar winning Bohemian Rhapsody. While that Freddie Mercury biopic was mostly directed by Bryan Singer (including the universally praised Live Aid sequence that so many of its fans celebrate), it was not finished by him. That duty came to Dexter Fletcher who, while prepping Rocketman, agreed to step in and finish nearly the last month of shooting the Queen film after Singer went AWOL. He also provided exactly what the movie had been set up to be: a predictable and unimaginative toiling of formula. Which makes Fletcher’s own small departures from that baseline so unexpectedly joyful here. Rocketman still deals with an English pop icon at the zenith of his adoration (and hubris), complete even with a Game of Thrones actor playing shady manager John Reid—it was Aidan Gillen in Bohemian and Madden in Rocketman—but the devil, like Elton’s opening scene costume, is in the details.
For all of Rocketman’s need to celebrate its subject matter (John is an executive producer), the movie has a candid audacity that is refreshing in a modern studio tent pole. Whereas Bohemian was as demure as a Hays Code era picture about Freddie Mercury’s bisexuality, Rocketman makes no attempt to sidestep that Elton loves men, even if he inexplicably married a woman every once in a while. Elton and Reid’s relationship is clearly physical, with Madden showcasing a high, highland swagger in the role. Elton John might be the persona Reggie puts on to become a star, but Madden’s Reid needs no costume to dominate a room.
This is contrasted nicely with the platonic and earnest kinship between Elton and Bernie Taupin, which becomes the movie’s true heart. Often overlooked for being the lyricist for most of Elton John’s best treasured standards, Bernie is no lover to Elton. Yet he might as well be his soulmate in this movie, offering a near constant outlet for Egerton’s inner-Reggie to crawl out past the oversized sunglasses and chicken feathers that grow ever higher as the hairline recedes.
It’s a strong tangent that unfortunately, like so many other details in this type of film, cannot be fully fleshed out due to the nature of the beast. In an attempt to cram in as much as possible from Elton’s first decade as a rock star, narrative themes fall by the wayside in favor of offering a snapshot of his greatest hits and failures. In a desire to show the rocketman in all his many fire-lit shadings, there is little in the way of depth on display. Elton’s relationship with his parents Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) particularly leave something to be desired beyond their general disappointment in having a gay son, even one who is the biggest musical icon on the planet. Howard is not helped any by a script that even gives her the equivalent of “the wrong kid died.”
For whatever easily recognizable shortcomings its genre presents, Rocketman still works whenever its musical star has musical moments. Given that none of these movies have the time or inclination to really examine the creative process of writing songs, Fletcher’s picture takes the assumption that all these tunes come out fully formed and turns it into an asset where they’re with Elton even as a boy: they appear as the approving smiles of imagined ghosts. His living parents couldn’t applaud his genius, but he is haunted by the love which audiences are already prepared to shower Reggie with. The effect is thus more of a fantasy than just a biography, one with occasional moments of bedazzlement thanks in no small part to Egerton, who gives his best performance to date as the diva who’s constantly hiding his introversion. He may not have the real Elton’s pipes, but he is not a shabby singer by any means, and he captures the star’s resilience and tenaciousness to a tee.
The result is a movie that isn’t quite out of this world, but you’ll still be drawn into its orbit—like a candle’s breezy flicker.