The Elton John biopic Rocketman is nearly as shiny and explosive as its subject  05/17/2019 17:50:00   Alissa Wilkinson
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman.
David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

Any movie about Elton John would have to be much, much larger than life. Its spectacular subject has been a legend for decades, his songs ubiquitous, his stage presence iconic.

So when I say there are at least four movies knocking around in Rocketman, I dont mean it as a slight. Its a biopic and a jukebox musical and a romance, and also a movie about addiction, all crammed into a frenetic, jewel-studded ecstasy of a movie.

And you know what? For the most part, I think it works.

Rocketman is smart enough to not try to outshine its star. Its flashy because Elton John is a light source all his own. Its absolutely exploding with energy because Elton John is its pulse. It stumbles a few times  as has its subject  but on the whole, its a consistently good performance from start to finish, a movie rooted in a real story that nonetheless doesnt keep itself too tethered to the ground.

Which is a bit of a relief. You dont have to be a fan of Elton Johns music to know his music; even the most pop culture-oblivious person knows Your Song, and Tiny Dancer, and Rocket Man. And its easy, watching Taron Egerton play Elton John whipping a crowd into a frenzy, to understand his genius. Its a solid introduction to the singer that is also guaranteed to please his fans.

And if the movie doesnt reach his level, well, thats fine. Can you really blame it?

Rocketman turns Elton Johns life into a musical, scored by himself

Rocketman has been a passion project for Dexter Fletcher, who was originally attached to direct an R-rated version of last years Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. That film was taken from him by 20th Century Fox and handed to Bryan Singer; when Singer was eventually fired from the project after going AWOL from the set, Fletcher was brought back on to finish and clean it up. (According to Fletcher, the films star, Rami Malek, told him that if Fletcher were to come to set and shit on the floor, youll still do a better job than this guy.)

Fletcher didnt get a directorial credit on Bohemian Rhapsody, which turned out curiously bland for centering on such a flashy figure, but the movie was still a monster box office hit and nabbed nominations and wins throughout awards season.

Now it seems safe to say that Fletchers own time has come, and hes made a movie that is, above all, aggressively not bland. It opens with Elton John (Egerton, who is excellent throughout), in a fiery orange, campy sequined devil suit with horns, striding through a hallway that looks like it might be backstage at a venue but turns out to be the hallway to an AA meeting. He plops himself into a chair, declares himself to be addicted to alcohol  and cocaine, and pills, and weed, and plenty of other things  and starts telling his life story to the slightly dumbfounded group.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman.
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman.
David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

That rock-bottom moment provides the films frame, which means this is more than just a paint-by-numbers saunter through the life of an icon. The screenplay by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse) tells the tale of a deeply lonely, deeply insecure man with addiction whos launched to fame early but has a lot of hurdles to clear before he can learn to be a human.

Those hurdles start when hes a child in an unhappy home, raised by a bitter mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), an attentive grandmother (Gemma Jones), and an emotionally absent father (Steven Mackintosh). He shows promise early, studying at the Royal Academy of Music and eventually attracting the attention of budding manager Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe), who connects him with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell).

The two men form what turns out to be a lifelong partnership, Bernie writing the lyrics, Elton writing the music and performing. And soon, its as if someones lit a rocket under Elton; in the films rendering, a gig at the Troubadour in Los Angeles makes him into a superstar almost overnight, by his mid-20s.

Taron Egerton, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Richard Madden in Rocketman.
Taron Egerton, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Richard Madden in Rocketman.
David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

Its a wild ride, though the outlines are familiar: Unassuming boy from a small town hits it big, wins admirers, gets rich, finds love, loses love, alienates old friends, gets hooked on substances, crashes, and must overcome his own worst enemy: himself. Which is just what Rocketman does, particularly once his manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden) enters the picture.

The film uses the rockers biggest hits as a trail of bread crumbs; although Taupin writes most of his lyrics, theyre still known as Elton Johns songs, and in Rocketman, theyre also the soundtrack to Johns own life, expressions of his longings and sadness and joy. Its a jukebox musical about Elton John, using the music of Elton John, and the theatricality and personal nature of his songs work well for this purpose.

So even if the arc is somewhat predictable, its not a total wash. Theres a reason so many rocker biopics follow the same trajectory; its a mythology rooted in fact. We know, more or less, where this is going  the fun of Rocketman is how it gets there.

Rocketman tells a familiar story but in a mostly refreshing way

What Rocketman smartly does while telling a familiar arc is mess with some of the cinematic particulars to keep things from getting stale. (I saw the film at an 8 am screening, four weary days into the Cannes Film Festival, and I can say with certainty that it is never, ever boring.) The most successful technique Fletcher employs is letting the film stray away from too much realism; in the early Troubadour gig, for instance, when Elton starts playing Crocodile Rock, both he and the crowd begin to float up into the air. Its a bit of fantasy that depicts the reality, the feeling of the music more than the literalism of it.

This happens throughout Rocketman, which employs everything from full-scale song-and-dance numbers on a carnival pier to cheeky montages seemingly mounted on a West End stage to the repeated appearance of Eltons younger self. For the most part, its seamlessly woven into the narrative. Were more inside Eltons headspace than relying on Egerton to telegraph his emotions to us, as good as his performance is. (He can dance like a dervish and very competently does his own singing, if you were wondering.)

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman.
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman.
David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

At times, though, Rocketman is less inventive than it should be  particularly at the end, when it employs the very tired but very common technique of showing us pictures of the movies characters next to real photos in order to, I dont know, prove that they got it right? Its unnecessary, a failure of imagination after hours of casting a magical spell over the audience. It suggests that the filmmaking team didnt quite have the guts to go full throttle and lean into the spectacle that might have been possible.

Still, Rocketman knows its main job isnt just to tell us about Elton John but to let us into his headspace, his struggles, and his lifelong search for love. And so it turns out the film is a romance  not between Elton and John Reid (though it does contain their much-touted, moderately explicit sex scene) but between Elton and Bernie, who is straight, loyal, and not afraid to plainly tell his friend that he loves him. The film spends less time dwelling on the machinations of celebrity and fame to focus on their story instead.

Its a bit refreshing to see that kind of relationship portrayed with such openness and honesty, particularly in a friendship between two men that never slips into masculine buddy clichs. The composition of Your Song, with its familiar refrain of how wonderful life is, now youre in the world, is collaborative for them precisely because its a song as well as a feeling that they share. And its Bernies steady love of his friend that is Eltons anchor in the end. Thats what keeps Rocketman from becoming a tragedy.

So yes, Rocketman sometimes feels like its lost its way, especially near the end. But its still a joyous celebration, a colorful story about love that can help people heal. Filtered through Elton Johns beloved hits, its an outsize, audacious, jubilant take on a familiar story  and theres no denying its shooting for the stars.

Rocketman opened at the Cannes Film Festival on May 14, and opens in theaters in the US on May 29.

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