Towards the end of Rocketman, a rehabbed Elton John (Taron Egerton) is called “strange” by a phantasm of his father, disdain dripping from his voice. Elton flips the thinly veiled epithet, replying that he is quite alright being called strange.
It wasn’t an easy (yellow brick) road to get that point of self-love and acceptance. Rocketman, through Elton John’s costumed recollections during a rehab group session, tells the story of Reginald Dwight, a young boy living a middle class life in England with a dismissive mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), a distant father (Steven Mackintosh), and a caring grandmother who encourages him to pursue music after hearing him on the piano. His success is kicked into overdrive when he meets Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), a songwriter that his record label pairs him with. The two quickly form a close relationship that Reginald – now Elton Hercules John – hopefeully reads as romantic, but Taupin gently, compassionately turns him down. Close as they are through Elton’s rapid descent to superstardom, that initial rejection, coupled with a loveless childhood, leaves Elton vulnerable to the charms of John Reid (Richard Madden), a smooth talking music manager who becomes Elton’s first lover. Their romantic relationship becomes professional when Reid becomes his manager, and their volatile union feeds into Elton’s excesses and self-loathing, guiding him on a path of tragic self-destruction through drug and alcohol abuse.
Elton John’s outré persona and rock genius couldn’t possibly be contained by a by-the-numbers biopic, and thankfully Rocketman doesn’t try to be one. Instead, director Dexter Fletcher re-fashions his story into a quirky jukebox musical that weaves fever-dream fantasy, painful reality, and one of popular music’s great catalogs into one shiny package. How the songs manifest themselves vary: schoolboy Elton dances to “The Bitch is Back” with his cul-de-sac, teen Reggie turns ‘Saturday Night’s Alright” into a rambunctious celebration of his first gigs, and adult Elton composes “Your Song” in real-time, his breakout hit contextualized as a stirring tale of unrequited love for a visibly moved Taupin. Fletcher’s structure is bold, even inspired, but it can’t help being a bit weird, with some random song choices that don’t quite work and some fantasy sequences that take the kitsch too far. But like Elton, it’s the good kind of weird, where you appreciate the effort to match framing device with subject. More often than not, the film succeeds at finding emotional resonance and toe-tapping entertainment in re-imagining Elton’s classics in this way.
There are limits to Rocketman’s invention. Elton John’s outsized life and career would surely struggle in the confines of a two-hour movie, and it shows here. The script streamlines too much of his story, skating past story beats and key relationship dynamics that deserved more than a passing glance. His career ascendance is handled in a snazzy, lazy montage that doesn’t explain how he became so popular at that particular moment. We could assume a lot – his undeniable talent, his wacky costumes – but it deserved to be seen, even if ony through one of those fantasy sequences. Similarly shortchanged is Elton’s relationship with John Reid, which is given a “Wonky Cat” sequence, the much-ballyhooed sex scene, and little else. Aside from Bernie Taupin, Reid was one of the most consequential figures in Elton’s life, but we only glimpse how their relationship was built and then collapsed into its toxic and abusive final form. Reid’s one moment of physical abuse is one of the most shocking in the whole film, and it’s a waste of Taron Egerton and Richard Madden’s intense chemistry that the good and bad nuances of their relationship aren’t explored fully.
Thankfully, Rocketman doesn’t sterilize much of Elton’s life; his sexuality is unambiguous and central, as is his substance abuse. The film doesn’t, however, dig into the triggers that precipitated his downfall and ultimate re-surgence. Its most useful insight is that Bernie Taupin was Elton John’s true soulmate (all due respect to David Furnish), and their platonic relationship was a source of intense struggle for him. Their complicated dynamic forms Rocketman’s most emotionally effective scenes, and offer better context to Elton’s self-loathing and journey to self-acceptance than the film’s penchant for unsubtle speechifying. Had Rocketman extended this level of detail to Elton’s other relationships, the film’s narrative and thematic wealth would’ve been on par with its visuals and performances.
Much of Rocketman’s emotional weight (and multi-colored winged costumes) is set on Taron Egerton’s shoulders, and he wears them excellently. He is really good at the standard Elton John imitation, but he truly shines when gets to the unloved little Reggie beneath the sequins and feathers. Egerton is deeply in tune with Elton’s deep-seated loneliness, and taps into it with startling, affecting ease. Through a shattering look of disappointment at his father’s complete disinterest in him, or the naked adoration of Taupin in his eyes as he sings “Your Song”, he soulfully communicates the overwhelming sadness at Elton’s core. Egerton also does his own singing in the film, and while he takes cues from Elton’s originals, there is a vulnerable sweetness in his voice that makes the songs feel fresh. Egerton is bouyed by great scene partners that he crackles with on screen; Jamie Bell conveys Bernie Taupin’s awkward, charming warmth well enough to see how Elton might easily fall in love with him, and Richard Madden’s Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde take on John Reid is both unsettling and shamefully irresistible.
Rocketman, like its pre-destined counterpoint Bohemian Rhapsody, is easy to love. The film does its best to switch up the staid biopic formula and deliver the kind of fantastical celebration that a living legend like Elton John deserves. Elton couldn’t have found a better portrayal than Taron Egerton’s, and the film dazzles with his spirit. Still, Rocketman lacks a compelling point to make about him, and that feels wrong for someone of his influence on pop culture.
If Rocketman says anything about Elton John, it’s that he is a once-in-a-lifetime talent that deserves to be acknowledged while he’s still here. It doesn’t make for the most insightful film, but you can at least appreciate the sentiment, and those wonderful songs.