Any major studio that gets its hands on the rights to a rock star’s music and desires to retrofit it into a movie for the fans to drive down memory lane has two options: A biopic that episodically lines up snippets of the artist’s life, like last year’s bafflingly popular Bohemian Rhapsody, or a jukebox musical that integrates the beloved hits into an original story like the gaudy Mamma Mia! or the sublime Across the Universe.
Rocketman, a dazzlingly entertaining, heartbreakingly vulnerable, and delightfully exuberant biopic about the great Elton John (Taron Egerton) dares to ask a question so simple yet so smart: Why not do both in the same movie? So we get an intimately dissected and incredibly well acted dramatic biopic as well as a spectacularly visualized and choreographed bona fide musical. It’s a bit of a miracle for one film to represent recent best examples of two separate genres, but Rocketman somehow pulls it off.
First, the rock star biopic: Every review of any straight-faced example of this genre is legally required to mention Walk Hard at least once, so let me get that out of the way. Just like Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman follows the genre’s formula and structure so memorably skewered in Dewy Cox’s cautionary tale. We begin with Elton, né Reginald, a child prodigy burying himself in his music to cope with the emotional hole in his heart brought on by his loveless father (Steven Mackintosh) and selfish mother (Bryce Dallas Howard). After finding true inspiration thanks to his lyric-writing partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), he enjoys the spoils of becoming an overnight smash. But of course the music, the money and the millions of fans turn out to be a temporary fix for the loneliness he has felt since childhood, so in comes the “dark period” full of drugs, sex, copious partying, and the alienation of everyone who genuinely loves him, a period made worse by an abusive relationship with his life partner/manager (Richard Madden). This all sets up the third act, the long road to redemption.
So the recipe is the same we’ve tried many times before, but writer Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher are passionate, intimate and creative enough to infuse it with delectable and previously unused ingredients. So while there is, indeed, the typical montage showing the artist touring around the world while his star rises with the usual superimposition of newspaper clippings and billboard charts on various performance shots, there’s also a neat “sleight of camera” where each swipe of his hand on the piano transforms him into another one of his archetypal looks from his career, letting fans stay on top of every period without literally spelling it out.
The expected framing device that begins the story at a much later part of the artist’s career is a lot more interested in digging into Elton’s psyche and how his troubled past can heal his future than mere narrative excuse for a series of flashbacks. We begin with Elton at rehab, exposing his many crippling addictions to a group of strangers. He enters as full Elton John in his bedazzled devil costume, yet as his story carries on, he gradually loses a piece of cloth until the Reginald that’s been desperate to hide himself for decades begins to reveal himself. Fletcher and Hall are fully aware that they’re tackling the life of someone who internalized his emotional trauma into his art and persona until, as Ben Vereen in All That Jazz so eloquently said, “He didn’t know where the games ended and the reality began.” Just like the underrated James Brown biopic Get On Up, Rocketman most efficiently captures the soul of its subject when reality and art become one in the mind of an artist who eventually can’t separate the two. Fletcher has a lot of fun with match cuts that switch between Elton’s escapist visions and the underlying stark truth.
In a strictly audio/visual sense, the musical numbers are stunning, each new one managing to top what came before in uniqueness and whimsy. With one exception, song selections aren’t based on just popularity, but whether or not they capture and enhance the mood of their respective sequences while moving the story and the character development forward. We get interesting angles into many of Elton’s hits: The upbeat Benny and The Jets turns into an eerie plunge into depression, the somber Goodbye Yellow Brick Road becomes an anthem of self-empowerment, etc. The performances are solid all around, but Taron Egerton embodies Elton with his pitch-perfect singing and captivating natural presence. His is a meticulously mannered performance in the best possible way, where even the tiniest facial tic becomes an irreplaceable detail that completes the big picture. With this performance and the overall film, it’s hard to imagine a better tribute to such a singular icon.
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Writer: Lee Hall
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.