The posters say that the only way to truly tell Elton John’s story “is to live his fantasy.” In several instances, Rocketman lazily forfeits the “Tiny Dancer” singer into the jaws of the monotonous biopic beast. But in a whole lot of others, director Dexter Fletcher’s fantastically flamboyant movie floats above the screen, soaring beyond so many of the rudimentary patterns of fact-based filmmaking. It so often achieves in exhibiting Elton’s fantasy that any doubt of fan approval can be put to rest, even if the legend’s story gets lost within his own sparkling glamor.
In Bohemian Rhapsody last year – which Fletcher stepped in to complete after the original director Bryan Singer was fired mid-production – the journey of Queen and lead vocalist Freddie Mercury was accompanied by their catalogue chronologically, from A Night At The Opera all the way to their iconic performance at Live Aid. Here, however, John’s unforgettable repertoire provides the soundtrack for the foundational and most melodramatic moments of his life, of which he spends the entire film hauntingly reflecting upon in rehab. In that spirit, Rocketman is more Broadway than bravado (and already feels destined for the stage), and actually makes the bond between the lyrics, the lyricist, and the listener even stronger.
Among the most impressive achievements of Lee Hall’s screenplay is that exact approach. While Rhapsody also centered around an incredibly popular musician whose repressed homosexuality found eventual refuge in an outrageous persona, Rocketman’s a full-blown, song-and-dance fantasy. It’s a biographical musical suited to the eccentricities of its subject, rather than a musician’s biopic restricted by the facts of a completed story.
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With that said, the down-to-earth glimpses we do get of Elton’s life are plagued by a series of binding clichés. After being transported into John’s childhood (when he was known as Reggie Dwight) by a grandly choreographed, if corny, tune in a dull suburban neighborhood – where the boy’s bold red hair already sticks him out from everyone else – we meet his far-less-than-supportive family. There’s his conservative, emotionally absent father (Steven Mackintosh), who scuffs “don’t be soft” whenever his son asks for affection, and his distracted mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), who’s too focused on her husband’s lack of affection to give a damn about anything else.
But as he tries to find his footing in the music industry, a colleague tells Reggie, “you got to kill the person you were born to be to become the person you want to be.” From there, the name Elton Hercules John is born, and Rocketman suggests that the motive behind all of this new character’s peculiarities and outlandishly bright gimmicks is to hopefully catch the eyes of his parents. Though it may be true, having seen Freddie Mercury battle the same sort of detachment just last fall, the idea feels rather simplistic.
However, if there’s one positive attribute shared between Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s the exhilarating and dedicated performance that dazzles front and center. Taron Egerton, who’s best known for the Kingsman series, gives this role – which we can tell is a physically and emotionally demanding one – his all, capturing Elton’s on and offstage charisma so well that it’s hard not to be wowed.
By now, it’s no surprise that the British actor did his own singing for the film – he and the real Elton John gave a mini performance at its Cannes premiere – and that fact provides an additional layer of authenticity to the performance. Though he doesn’t look or sound exactly like Elton, he gets the vibe just right, creating a genuine and welcomed presence onscreen.
Another well-known element of the illusion is the benefit of an R-rating, which allows Rocketman to be raunchier and a lot more profane. It’s a lot more open about Elton’s sexuality and drug usage – one of the biggest detriments of Bohemian Rhapsody – which in turn adds another degree of faithfulness. And though some things wrap out a little too neatly at the end, the music and the wackiness will drown out most, if not all of the complaints of the average Elton John fan.
A fantasy in nearly every sense of the word, Rocketman reaches for and grabs hold of the stars so often that the dazzle occasionally becomes too much to handle.