Taron Egerton has been knocking on the door to stardom for awhile now, but this time out he’s smashed it to splinters. In director Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, the young Brit plays rock icon Elton John with so much energy and such nuanced perception that it defies the imagination to suggest that his career isn’t about to soar into orbit. Sure, he’s helped by state-of-the-art makeup, but not only can he sing, he can sing like Elton John, and he does his own singing throughout the movie.
Dexter Fletcher also finished the principal photography on Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody when Singer left that project. There is an interesting irony there. Rocketman is the better and more audacious film.
Rocketman is not a standard biopic. The movie does chronicle how shy, young Reginald Dwight rose from obscurity to become the king of glitter rock, but it doesn’t do it in a standard Hollywood “And then I wrote” format. Formatted and structured like a stage musical, it’s punctuated with frequently surreal, fantasy musical numbers. Any extra is liable to join the chorus without notice at any moment. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t cinematic. The irresistibly bouncy “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is particularly brilliantly directed, and bridges a decade to get the main character from boyhood to young manhood.
Rocketman opens with Elton John, perhaps not arbitrarily dressed as a bright, orange-sequined Satan, storming into a group therapy session at a palatial inpatient rehab facility in the countryside. Elton John’s well-publicized struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction are dealt with unsparingly, but not without a wry sense of gallows humor. Finally ready to confront his addictions, he tells us that he’s not just an alcoholic and a cocaine addict, but a bulimic, a sex addict, has an anger-management problem and is a compulsive shopper.
This all means of course that the bulk of our story has to be told in flashbacks, which should normally have the cliche alerts flashing. The movie’s refusal to be tied to strict realism is its salvation here, as it moves with deceptive ease between a comforting conventionality and an over-the-top, hallucinatory exuberance. At his debut performance at the Hollywood Troupadore, Elton not only floats behind his piano in an expressionistic interpretation of vintage still photographs of the young star doing his trademark handstand behind the keyboard, the audience itself begins to defy gravity.
The plot structure itself is similarly stylized. The movie avoids references to specific years or albums like the plague. What the Hell: You can get facts and dates on Wikipedia. This movie is more into relationships – with lyricist Bernie Taupin, who’s played with a nearly saintly sweetness by Jamie Bell, and manager-lover John Reid (Game of Thrones heartthrob Richard Madden). Reid, by the way, is shown as a heartless, callow heel who apparently makes his assistant provide poolside oral sex – in front of the pool boy.
Elton John’s parents come off little better. Via flashbacks we’re shown glimpses of the future rock star’s rocky childhood, starved for attention by two self-centered parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh). The only affection and encouragement he receives is from his grandmother (Gemma Jones) who sees that the young musical prodigy gets a musical education.
Rocketman is not shy about it’s main character’s struggle with being gay – which was if anything even harder in the seventies – drug use or alcoholism. It is appropriately rated R.
Rocketman, if nothing else, provide some big screen revenge for the real life Elton John in the unlikely event he still needs it. Thank God the movie is not just about shaming the people who done the hero wrong, like a glitter rock Mommy Dearest or Mein Kampf. The movie doesn’t even try to blame Elton John’s addictions on his parents or failed relationships. First and foremost it’s out to entertain, and entertain it does. It’s a sometimes poignant, sometimes whimsical, musical about a man who finds there’s nothing wrong with fame and fortune, as long as you conquer the demons inside first.