Possibly the most important thing to know about Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is that the filmmaker came in during the last few weeks of production of Bohemian Rhapsody and helped the film cross the finish line less than a year ago. But with this film he has fashioned a decidedly different biopic about another gay musical icon. Throughout the film you become keenly aware that his homage is something else entirely as soon as our hero, Elton John (Taron Egerton), joins a rehab meeting dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit with gigantic wings and a helmet fitted with two devilish horns. John may look like a phoenix at that moment, but he hasn’t risen from the ashes just yet.
After admitting to the oddly silent group that he’s an alcoholic, drug addict, sex addict, shopping addict and bulimic, the counselor essentially asks him to tell his story from the beginning. John gets up, opens the doors and we’re transported to 1950s England where a younger version of John (Sebastian Rich), born Reginald Dwight, leads a musical number set to “The Bitch Is Back” while a frustrated older John, the counselor and the other group members look on. Like most of the film, it’s borderline surreal with a touch of the familiar, but it kicks things off with an effective stylistic bang.
Taron Egerton in Rocketman
As it comes with many music biopics, of course, the millions of fans who have made Elton Hercules John one of the most popular entertainers of all time, the side-by-side visual comparisons may well be unnecessary. They may have eternally fresh memories of John’s rainbow-hued feathers, the sparkly baseball uniform from his shows at Dodger Stadium or his star-making, gravity-defying L.A. debut at the Troubadour. But the movie gives you those moments anyway, and a lot more as well. The commercial command of fan service, a term often associated in the context of mega-franchises like Star Wars or the Marvel Universe, also applies to movies about bestselling musical artists. You Might call Rocketman conventional, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But as with its beloved subject and his enormous catalog of hits, the movie’s familiarity turns out to be crucial to its charm.
With all that being said, now might be a good time to dispense with the sensitive subject of Bohemian Rhapsody, and not just because they both center on hugely popular musicians whose long-repressed homosexuality found both expression and cover in outrageous sense of style. But as previously mentioned, there’s also the face that an uncredited Fletcher wound up completing Bohemian Rhapsody last year, after the director Bryan Singer was fired mid-production. The difference between that movie and this one is basically the difference between a tissue of clichés and a straightforward but well-told story. But it is also the difference between a musician’s biopic and a biographical musical. One of the more intuitive devices of the screenplay by Lee Hall is to structure the movie as a full-blown song-and-dance spectacle, in which fantasy and reality often blur together.
The inevitable performances of “Your Song,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “I’m Still Standing” and, of course, “Rocket Man” are treated not just as career milestones but also thoughtfully staged, psychologically revealing musical numbers. There’s a lot of psychology to reveal. John’s story, with all its highs and lows, has been told before, in salacious tabloid chunks and unauthorized biographies. But those who know him as an unparalleled success and a trailblazing LGBTQ icon, or who associate him primarily with the joyousness of his music, may be caught off-guard by some of the more harrowing moments in this particular telling.
Rocketman may push the envelope by the undemanding standards of the Hollywood mainstream, but its depiction of rock ‘n’ roll debauchery still falls within a range of perfunctory, coming in somewhat sanitized gestures. You will wince in disapproval as he squanders emotion on those who don’t deserve it and pushes away those who do. You will make peace with the face that his musical genius, his ability to draw on a vast array of musical genres and pull infernally catchy compositions out of thin air, lies beyond the movie’s ability to evoke. What you may not always anticipate is the wit and imagination of the staging, the way the script repurposes some of those hits to underscore crucial dramatic moments. “Honky Cat” is reborn as an anthem of celebrity greed, while “Rocket Man” is performed with the conceit of John at the bottom of a swimming pool achieving a gorgeous lyricism that Fletcher pulls back from too soon. Given the endlessness of the offerings, it’s understandable that the movie has to make do with excerpts, but you always want more of the music rather than less. As we groove from song to song Rocketman stays sincere and familiar, consistently carrying its charm and surreal fantasy elements with the joyousness of any Elton John tune.
Taron Egerton in Rocketman
Leaving wanting more music is hardly the worst thing one could leave this movie thinking. Much of that has to do with Egerton, who is far from a perfect physical match for his subject, but who wisely makes up for the difference through understated evocation rather than showy mimicry. He doesn’t disappear into the role, exactly, but he accomplishes something nearly as remarkable, which is to locate subtle depths of feeling in a character we first see wearing a devil-horned phoenix costume. In his most aching moments, this Elton John seems to be singing not to others but to himself, reminding us that even the most universal pleasures have intensely personal roots. Before it was your song, it was his.