An embarrassment of riches in the form of toe-tapping musical numbers and a kaleidoscope of vibrant sets and costumes wash across the screen in Rocketman, the new Elton John biopic that overcomes a familiar narrative to deliver a vivid and surprisingly nuanced cinematic experience that delivers on all fronts.
The comparison will be to Bohemian Rhapsody, last year’s Queen biopic that was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and since became the highest grossing film ever shown in Czech cinemas. But this kind of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll story was a old-hand cliché long before the likes of Walk the Line, Ray, Get on Up, and countless others.
Rocketman, however – despite being executive produced by Elton John, who had tried to get the project off the ground for the past two decades – is the rare example of a rock’n’roll biopic that hits all the right notes, one that isn’t as concerned with telling this familiar story as it is in the way it tells it.
Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) stars as the rock icon, and doesn’t attempt an imitation of Elton John so much as a re-interpretation of the character. That’s good because Egerton doesn’t look or sound much like John, and it’s great because the actor so commits to this role that we become lost in his interpretation regardless.
Rocketman frames its story around John’s rehab stay in the early 1980s, after a decade of booze, drugs, and sex addiction has nearly killed him. Soon, it flashes back to the story of young piano prodigy Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley), growing up in suburban 1950s UK.
But we realize that this isn’t the usual biopic offering as snide mom (Bryce Dallas Howard), bitterly cold dad (Steven Mackintosh), and the young Dwight join Egerton’s fully decked-out adult Elton in a dazzling musical number throughout the streets.
The more familiar ground of Elton’s rise to fame is otherwise tread upon here, but the inventive and exceptionally choreographed musical interludes give Rocketman some real movie musical backbone that picks things up when the narrative starts settles into ticking off the usual boxes.
A climactic rendition of the titular Rocketman, partially sang underwater as a duet with Egerton and Illesley is a surreal highlight, as is a piano-jumping Troubadour performance of Crocodile Rock and a re-creation of the classic video for I’m Still Standing. But each of the musical numbers are inventively choreographed and well-woven into the storyline.
And some surprisingly nuanced characterizations help give Rocketman a tangible emotional core. Especially Jamie Bell’s Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime writing partner who is portrayed not only as true friend and stable professional presence throughout Elton’s life but also a human being with his own needs and desires away from the protagonist.
The distinctions are minor, but the care taken to crafting Taupin makes for an engaging and fully realized character – especially compared to the likes of the incredibly bland supporting members of Queen who fade right out of their own movie in Bohemian Rhapsody.
There’s real craft taken to creating the other characters as well: mom and dad, despite their shortcomings are not only good or bad, and Bernie and Elton’s original agents, played by Charlie Rowe and Stephen Graham, are also colorful. Elton John doesn’t see the world in black & white, Egerton’s character says at one point, and that line of thinking has been nicely adapted to the screenplay.
Still, there’s no shortage of animosity vented against John Reid (played by Richard Madden), Elton’s manipulative second agent who seduces the star in more ways than one. Madden seems to be auditioning for James Bond a la a young Sean Connery here, and he nails the cold no-nonsense demeanor even if he’s playing an unrepentant slimeball and the one character in Rocketman that can termed a villain.
Rocketman was directed by Dexter Fletcher, who also filled in on Bohemian Rhapsody when Bryan Singer left the project with weeks of filming to go; based on the first-rate quality of the finished product here, the Queen biopic might have been better off with Fletcher guiding the project from the outset.
Ultimately, Rocketman is not so much a biopic as vibrant, full-fledged phantasmagoria of a movie musical. As familiar as the narrative is, this is a glittery, shimmering rock opera that feels like the kind of film that Elton John’s career was made for.