Elton John gets the biopic treatment in this gloriously vivid musical, complete with a spot-on performance by Taron Egerton.
May 30, 2019
"It's obviously not all true, but it's the truth," says Elton John about Rocketman. Trust the British superstar to sum up his own lively, dreamlike musical biopic perfectly. Cinematic celebrations of beloved singers and bands often aim for little more than supremely skilled impersonations, toe-tapping greatest-hits soundtracks and broad rags-to-riches overviews; indeed, it's an approach that won Bohemian Rhapsody several Oscars. But there's a vibrant spark to Rocketman as it charts Reginald Dwight's transformation into Elton Hercules John. A glorious tone, too, which couldn't work better. Showing how fantastical the ups and downs of fame, fortune and rock stardom can be by sashaying through a sea of surreality, the result is a winning marriage of form and feeling.
Bursting into a support group wearing wings, horns and a blazing orange devil costume in the movie's opening moments, an 80s-era John (Taron Egerton) lays bare his sins. He's an alcoholic, cocaine addict, sex addict, bulimic, shopaholic, fond of prescription drugs, dabbles with marijuana and, if that's not enough, he also has anger management issues. That's Rocketman's warts-and-all baseline — the unflinching description of its protagonist at his lowest point, in his own words. Of course, we all already know how things turn out, but the film spends its two-hour running time unpacking and explaining John's troubles. Two intersecting threads come into focus: his ascent to the top of the music world, and his simultaneous descent into depression, frustration and loneliness.
From his therapy circle, John follows his younger self (Matthew Illesley) to his childhood home, with the singer stepping through his unhappy formative years as the son of bitter, bickering parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh). When his talent for tunes starts shining brightly, the biopic traces his long quest for success, including teaming up with lyricist Bernie Taupin (a well-cast Jamie Bell), who becomes a lifelong friend. After a 1970 trip to the US shoots John into the music stratosphere, the film watches as he rockets higher and higher, chronicling the hits, glitz, raucous parties and romantic dramas — complete with his first proper romance, with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden). But what goes up must come down, with the movie charting John's personal crashes as well.
Story-wise, so far, so standard. The familiar superstar origin tale and cliched sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll trajectory don't dissipate. But from the moment that John breaks into song while recounting his woes, then dances and sings his way along a visibly desaturated 50s suburban London street with the childhood Reggie by his side, Rocketman thoroughly eschews the standard approach. Biographical details guide the narrative as expected, with the film stringing together a timeline that spreads over four decades, however it's emotion that drives every scene in Lee Hall's (Victoria & Abdul) screenplay. As proved the case in Hall and John's first collaboration on Billy Elliott the Musical, blending sentiment and song couldn't be more pivotal, poignant or important. Nor could Rocketman's core creative decision, because this isn't just a music biopic. It's unashamedly a musical biopic, and those extra couple of letters make a significant difference.
With structure and staging that brings Hugh Jackman's Peter Allen musical The Boy From Oz to mind — not to mention a standout central performance — Rocketman is presented with razzle-dazzle showmanship that could easily see the movie adapted into a live production. Sequins, glitter, shiny platform shoes, oversized glasses and over-the-top outfits have long been part of John's public persona, and it's that theatricality that director Dexter Fletcher draws upon. That said, he's not simply fashioning the film after John's flamboyant attire. The intention, and one that comes to life with as much deep-seated feeling as eye-catching flashiness, is to convey John's true inner state rather than slavishly sticking to the truth. How better to show how young Reggie saw music as an escape from his difficult upbringing than to make his success seem like a dream? To demonstrate just how electrifying and unreal John's breakout gig felt than to literally depict him and the heaving crowd floating in the air? From the song-and-dance highs of finally making it, to the boozy, woozy, literally sinking lows of feeling all alone when the world is at his feet, the list of vivid and expressive examples goes on.
Not only set to all of the expected tracks, but using them to plot an engaging emotional journey, the final product takes more cues from Fletcher's last two official directorial credits — on the upbeat Proclaimers jukebox musical Sunshine on Leith, as well as the Egerton-starring sports biopic Eddie the Eagle — than his uncredited job taking over for the fired Bryan Singer on Bohemian Rhapsody. Without an ounce of surprise, Rocketman is all the better for it, even when it makes crowd-pleasing moves with some of its song choices, and doesn't dive as deep into its narrative and themes as it perhaps could. Still, the two biopics share a crucial element, apart from the obvious. It's unlikely that the Oscars will award two actors for portraying real-life stars two years in a row, but Egerton puts in a thrilling, multifaceted performance worthy of ample recognition. He's a candle in the wind and defiantly still standing, all while singing John's songs himself and soaring across this rousing movie.