A young boy finds his mundane life transformed by music, in the process transforming himself, but fills the void left by his absence of love with drugs, sex, and bad decisions. It’s a standard rock movie setup, but the presence of Elton John’s personality and indelible music literally elevates this impressive and enjoyable biography-slash-musical.
From his days playing keyboard in a touring soul band to being a troubled transatlantic solo star, Rocketman plays freely with the Elton John back catalogue, using his most famous tracks to illustrate moments of triumph and reckoning. This jukebox approach, using music to tell the story and bridge years of history, is mostly very successful, even if it seems bound to vex audiences who thought Bohemian Rhapsody showed too little respect for the chronology of Queen’s music.
Director Dexter Fletcher, parachuted in from that troubled production, doubles down on Rhapsody’s healthy disrespect for facts – plus old-school razzle-dazzle and an eagerness to please. An early sequence set to Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting begins in a dank old pub, then literally smashes through the window and sprints towards a 1960s fairground in pursuit of thrills and gorgeous crowd choreography, bridging an entire decade in John’s life. It’s electrifying, and at its best, Rocketman bottles that energy. Fletcher’s willingness to come up with big and bold visual ideas to illustrate John’s transcendent music, then quickly move on, is one of the great strengths of the film.
Taron Egerton is a great performer and it shows here, vividly capturing the energy of John’s performances and his wounded bafflement that commercial success doesn’t invite the love of those around him. It’s a star-making performance in a young career that’s already full of them. Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s remote, withholding mother makes the absolute most of her few scenes here. She’s crueller for the things she doesn’t say to her son, and it’s here that Lee Hall’s sharp screenplay comes alive. In an often camp movie which leans into its own camp-ness, she’s the campest element of them all – like Joan Crawford in a sensible cardigan – and I loved her.
Jamie Bell as John’s grounded and sanguine musical partner, Bernie Taupin, provides a poignant counterbalance to Egerton’s pain. He’s just as dedicated to music, but unburdened by the homosexuality that causes Elton such torment. In dealing with this, Rocketman is bolder than I expected. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, the film explicitly links John’s gayness with his misery and discomfort with fame. It’s a surprisingly progressive and modern ‘take’ which contextualises John’s reputation as a difficult man in a touching way.
However, as an authorised biopic, Rocketman flirts with hagiography in its willingness to flatter its subject and link any and all bad behaviour on their part to external influences. One scene, which permits the fictional Elton to say exactly what the real Elton has always wanted to say to the bad influences in his life – all of them pantomime caricatures – is eyebrow-raising.
Despite the sheer exuberance of the early musical numbers, which convey through ecstatic dancing and euphoric set pieces exactly why Elton John’s music is so exciting, the film is content to spend more time in the lows than the highs. That means a lot of croaky a cappella, dramatic lighting and sad piano as the drugs take their toll and John becomes more and more isolated. For a film which self-consciously speeds through the early years of its star’s career, in a hurry to get to the really good stuff, it’s enough to cause whiplash.
Still, it’s a wonderful ride: Rocketman boasts buoyant energy and sincerity, both often lacking in overlong and opportunistic musical biopics. And the film’s ostensible message, that it’s okay to cut ties with those in your life who are unwilling or unable to return your love, is more radical than it seems at first. Forgive and forget might be good enough for other tortured artists, but for a character as wonderfully caustic as Elton John? Not a fucking chance.