Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden
It’s telling that one of the early songs in Rocketman—the boisterous rock opera that charts the rise, fall and rise again of glam-rock icon Elton John—is “I Want Love.” It is the thesis of Rocketman writ large: the story of a lonely, misunderstood boy who grows up to be a lonely, misunderstood megastar. It’s a boon to screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Director Dexter Fletcher (who famously saved that other musical “biopic” Bohemian Rhapsody from ruin) that a thread of melancholy and alienation, often cloaked in intricate melodies and vocal gymnastics, already runs through a lot of Elton’s hits—apart from his outlandish outfits, it’s what made him one of the most intriguing stars of his era. All that’s needed is to string those threads together into a recognizable narrative.
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What makes Rocketman so exhilarating to watch is that the filmmakers do more than just tie those threads together. It jumbles fact and fiction, swirls Fellini and Fosse together, and rather than employing a chronological set list of hits (which is what Bohemian Rhapsody did), Rocketman deploys Elton’s tunes to advance mood rather than timeline. In doing so, the film reconfigures the songs, giving them new contexts and revealing hidden layers of meaning. It’s what elevates Rocketman above being just a glitzier, two-hour Behind the Music documentary.
The film begins with Taron Egerton as Elton barging into rehab in a sequined catsuit with horns, declaring himself an alcoholic, cocaine addict, bulimic, sex addict, and a shopaholic. Using the confessional as a framing device, it then flashes back to key chapters in the singer’s life, all played out as choreographed musical numbers. The majority of the numbers fall into one of two descriptors. First, there is flashy, as when the star as a boy rushes home to dinner and his shrewish mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard, valiantly mining nuggets of understanding from an unsympathetic character) to the strains of “The Bitch Is Back.” And then there is fantastical, as when the singer plays his first Stateside gig and he imagines the audience floating with him during a euphoric performance of “Crocodile Rock.”
These frenetically Fossean touches make the moments when it’s just singer and song stand out in starker relief. I dare anyone not to tear up and get goosebumps as Elton sits down at a piano and knocks out the melody for “Your Song” in a burst of inspiration, then turns to his friend Bernie Taupin (a gentle and compassionate Jamie Bell) as he sings “This one’s for you.” Or when he watches his lyricist and confidante drift away from him during an after-party to the lonely, yearning strains of “Tiny Dancer.” There may have been a quick same-sex kiss backstage at a 1960s soul-music revue, and there may have been a passionate affair with manager John Reid (slimy yet sexy Richard Madden, uninhibited in frank depictions of gay sex), but the true love story at the core of Rocketman is Elton’s friendship with Bernie. It may have been platonic (“I love you, man… but not that way”), but it is no less intimate—a shared passion borne out of the thrill of creating.
The film posits that it is Elton and Taupin’s estrangement that was the final straw in the singer’s downfall. And it’s why “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” sung as a duet by Bell and Egerton, is the true climax of the film: the arrangement (under the sure hand of producer Giles Martin) is at its most theatrical, and the lyrics are elevated from the story of a gigolo abandoning his hedonistic life into a repudiation of fame and an anthem of enlightenment. Brilliant.
The centerpiece of the film is a dynamic turn from Taron Egerton who, apart from performing all of his vocals, captures that combination of bravado and vulnerability, that sense of yearning and heartbreak, that keeps us plugged into Elton. But the real star is director Dexter Fletcher: unshackled from servicing the vision of an errant director and the interests of multiple parties, he displays a masterful hold of the musical medium, so much so that he can launch his leading man like a firework into the sky and be unafraid that he won’t leave his audience in the dust. It is Fletcher’s inventiveness that makes Rocketman soar. I hope you don’t mind when I tell you I will be watching it many times.
Photograph from United International Pictures