A dizzy, bedazzling biopic that leaves no sequin or fantasy sequence unturned, Rocketman is about as subtle as its famously outré muse. But there’s a lot of Technicolor flair in Dexter Fletcher’s flamboyant study of Elton John — and a beating heart in British actor Taron Egerton’s portrayal of an artist whose prodigious talent was matched only by his personal demons and desperate hunger for love.
If Fletcher’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because his first major directing credit wasn’t really credited at all; he came on to complete the final weeks of Bohemian Rhapsody last year when the film’s original director, X-Men auteur Bryan Singer, was let go from the project. Held up next to Rhapsody, with its fairly standard Behind the Music scaffolding and story beats, Rocketman feels like a different kind of bird: A musical extravaganza anchored less in the real world than in a sort of glittery jukebox Narnia.
Both movies, though, begin with the framework of a seminal moment; in this case, not Freddie Mercury’s iconic Live Aid performance but Elton’s ignominious tumble into rehab. At the height of his career, he hit bottom with everything else: sex, drugs, food, shopping. And so screenwriter Lee Hall (War Horse, Billy Elliot) unfurls his origin story — the shy, lonely boy who became an outrageous, equally lonely superstar.
Born Reginald Dwight to a self-absorbed mother and distant father in drab post-War England, The singer found his gift for music early on without much encouragement; a fateful meeting with lyricist Bernie Taupin (a gentle, empathetic Jamie Bell) put words to his melodies, in what would become a lifelong creative partnership.
It’s his future manager, (Bodyguard’s Richard Madden), though, who opens Elton up to the romantic urges he’s still terrified to admit to in one frank if abbreviated sex scene. (In that respect at least, it lands far ahead of Rhapsody’s strange evasions).
Fletcher can’t seem to help himself from hitting certain signpost tropes of rock biopics — will there ever not be a scene where the ornery A&R man dismisses at least one future classic out of hand, or the welcome-to-Hollywood palm-tree montage? — but he does it all so good-naturedly, it’s hard to really mind; it’s like watching Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine rendered entirely in rhinestones — all noise and shininess, and still somehow mesmerizing.
Supporting characters don’t come in many dimensions; John’s parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) treat their only child with almost Dickensian cruelty, and Madden’s character remains a cool enigma.
Still, Egerton’s whole-body commitment captures not just Elton’s extravagant physicality — in costume designer Julian Day’s hands, he’s essentially a one-man Mardi Gras — but his enduring sadness and insecurity (and the self-sabotaging behavior it was too often funneled through) without tipping into showbiz-tragedy cliché. His Rocketman is the starry-eyed cosmonaut the part demands, but merely, endearingly human too. B+