If you didn’t already think Freddie Mercury was robbed of the biopic he deserved, one look at Rocketman is enough to make you curse the stale, conventional trappings of Bohemian Rhapsody. The two films may share a villain — music executive John Reid, played by Aidan Gillen in the latter and Richard Madden in the former — and to a certain extent, a director (Dexter Fletcher was called in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired), but the similarities end there.
Rocketman is as colorful, razzle-dazzle and over-the-top as its subject, superstar Elton John, played with equal parts shy charm and grit by Taron Egerton. From its opening scene, which features a worn-out Elton, clad in an rhinestone-covered orange devil jumpsuit — complete with fiery, feathered wings — stumbling through a hallway and into rehab, it subverts our expectations, eschewing the obvious for the whimsical. And though the initial framing device — Elton sharing his life story in group — feels a little clunky — the first moments are a little too sluggish— the rest of the film more than makes up for it.
Egerton undoubtedly carries the film, conveying a strange mix of introversion and bounce-off-the-walls energy that grounds the larger-than-life figure he’s portraying. He wears Julian Day’s glitzy, campy costumes with gusto, refusing to be outshined by the fantastic array of oversized glasses he wears throughout the film, and his singing voice is lovely, echoing Elton John’s without trying too hard to match it. But what’s most striking about his performance is that it never feels like an impersonation. Whereas Bohemian Rhapsody was hell-bent on reproducing moments we’ve come to know well, Rocketman is more concerned with conveying the essence of the man and his music.
Though the flashbacks unfold somewhat linearly, starting with Elton’s childhood as Reginald Kenneth Dwight, born in the working-class London suburb of Pinner, they are used as a way to understand where the music comes from, rather than just hit biographical plot points. And in fact, the songs, refreshingly enough, don’t show up in chronological order. One magical dance number early on in the film shows a teenage Reggie (pre-Elton) tearing up a neighborhood carnival with fellow horned-rimmed glasses wearing teddy boys, belting out “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” a song that wouldn’t be released until 1973 when John was 26. Same goes for “The Bitch Is Back,” which characterizes a fraught interaction with his cold, often cruel mother, played with relish by Bryce Dallas Howard.
At its core, Rocketman is a story of a boy struggling with a devastating sense of loneliness and abandonment. His absent father, Stanley (Stephen Mackintosh) seems incapable of giving him the affection he needs, a trait that he’s internalized in his own quest for self acceptance. (A particularly moving scene features a young Reggie asking grown-up Elton for a hug, the same thing he once requested in vain from his father). As for mother Sheila, she’s so self-absorbed that she barely notices her son unless it’s to chastise or demand something from him. The only person around who really sees the potential Reggie so clearly exudes is his grandmother, Ivy (Gemma Jones), who shepherds him to a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music and tells him to make something of himself.
Much has already been made of the chemistry between Egerton and Richard Madden, who plays manager and lover John Reid, and with good reason. The two share a smoldering sex scene, and an unforgettable “Honky Cat” duet. (Though later interactions turn far more violent — Reid was a real asshole.) But the real love story here is the platonic bond between Elton John and longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who wrote some of the singer’s most incredible lyrics. The two play off each other with a lovely, sincere sense of camaraderie that plucks at the heartstrings as effectively as the music they produce together. The moment where Bell stands in the hallway, staring with raw emotion at Egerton at the piano composing “Your Song,” gave me such stirrings of lust mixed with genuine love that I felt I might burst. (Also, I think I love Jamie Bell now?)
Fletcher gets around the most obvious biopic pitfalls by simply refusing to even engage with them — it’s hard to be accused of taking liberties with real life events when you have audience members literally levitating off the ground in a surreal concert sequence, or a drugged-out, suicidal Elton singing a “Rocket Man” duet with his younger self at the bottom of a swimming pool. What’s more, Lee Halls’ script cleverly limits itself to a finite period, rather than cramming a life’s worth of stuff into the film.
All in all, Rocketman is a fun, poignant rhinestone of a movie that proves that a musical biopic can be a powerful force — if done right.