Using flashbacks John, in full stage regalia, tells the story during an AA meeting. The movie and his tale begin with a revelation. “My name is Elton Hercules John and I’m an alcoholic, and a cocaine addict, and a sex addict and a bulimic and a shopaholic who has a problem with weed and anger management.”
From the blunt introduction we’re led through the singer’s life on a broken timeline, jumping to and fro, blending fact and fantasy.
Jumbled up in the mix are his terrible parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh)—when he tells mom he’s gay she replies, “We will never be loved properly.”—his songwriting partner and muse Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), plus mounds of cocaine and hit songs used to punctuate the autobiographical action. Unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” prudish attitude regarding Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality, “Rocketman” is out and proud, detailing John’s intimate relationship with partner and manager John Reid (Richard Madden).
Part “Moulin Rouge” by way of Ken Russell‘s “Tommy,” “Rocketman’s” startling opening number, “The Bitch is Back,” establishes that this is no warmed over “Bohemian Rhapsody” clone. It is a musical, not simply a musical biopic. Characters burst into song and Elton John songs are woven into the score.
Of course, music is a large part of the story. In the tradition of musical theatre “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” isn’t simply performed as one of John’s biggest hits, it’s moves the story forward as a duet between John and his ex-wife-to-be Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker).
To illustrate the transcendent nature of John’s star-making US debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles director Dexter Fletcher gets metaphysical. As he plays “Crocodile Rock” both John and the audience levitate as if the music is taking them to a higher place. It’s trippy but wordlessly conveys the excitement of those early gigs. Add to that dancing Teddy Boys and flamboyant stage costumes and “Rocketman” feels Broadway bound.
The surreal storytelling effortlessly captures the heady, “Who wants to go to a party at Mama Cass‘s house?“ days of Elton John‘s early rise to stardom. Later, when John becomes a walking, singing rock n’ roll cliché director Dexter Fletcher amps up the style to portray the lifestyle the musician himself describes as “madness.” As such the biographical details are jumbled but “Rocketman” is more about capturing the moment not the exact details.
It is glittering eye candy but there is much humanity on display. In one remarkable scene Taron Egerton as John prepares for a live show with copious amounts of cocaine and wine. Staring into the mirror he tries to find his game face. From dead-eyed to sparkly in the flash we see the two sides of a man who once said, “I wish I was someone else.” Egerton is a dead ringer for John, even if doesn’t sound like the voice from the classic recordings. In a performance that portrays the humanity and the outrageousness of someone who says, “I do not live my life in black-and-white,” Egerton grabs the singer’s essence.
Nice supporting work from Jamie Bell as lyricist Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden as John’s boyfriend and manager Reid and Stephen Graham as music industry wheeler-dealer Dick James, who advises John to “buy something flashy, put on a great show and don’t kill yourself with drugs,” add to the flavour of the piece but it is Egerton’s show. He can sing and dance but also mines the character to find an emotional resonance missing from many biopics.
“Rocketman” is sometimes a little too on the nose in its song selections. As Taupin, who will eventually call the singer his brother, and John bond the soundtrack plays “Border Song’s,” “He’s my brother let us live in peace,” refrain. It’s a tad obvious for a movie that pushes buttons in terms of style, portrayal of sexuality and the flexibility of the biographical timelines.
By the film’s coda, however, it’s clear this is a tale of self-reckoning. There is much talk of reinvention, of “killing the person you were born to become the person you were born to be,” and as John becomes the person he is meant to be this very specific story’s “I’m Still Standing” message of resilience becomes universal.