With the smashing success of the Queen/Freddy Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” fresh in our rearview, this year’s “Rocketman,” the film biography of singer-songwriter Elton John, has been appropriately primed for audiences craving modern musicals about our recent pop-culture history. Director Dexter Fletcher worked as a producer on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but this outing leans into the music and magic of Elton’s imagination, creating fanciful sequences in which the memory and myth of the Elton John legacy are turned into a modern fairy tale about rock ‘n’ roll excess and self-discovery.
English upstart Taron Egerton stars as the shy musical prodigy who learns classical piano as a child until he falls in love with Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll movement of the 1950s. After playing local pub gigs, Reginald Kenneth Dwight changes his name to Elton John and is given the opportunity to record albums with another charismatic songwriter named Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). The film chronicles the ascension of Elton and his long-time lyricist as they travel from rainy London to sunny California, soaking in the rock star indulgences that come with the territory. The drugs and alcohol were a Band-Aid used to cover the emotional fragility of the young rock star as he was riding a wave of success without the ability to reveal his truth as a closeted gay man or control the volatile momentum of his career while his secretive and emotionally abusive lover John Reid (Richard Madden) who doubled as his manager.
Some audience members may be taken aback the first few times the characters face the camera and break into Elton John musical numbers that seem to take place outside of the historical reality of the picture. The movie tiptoes around this technique and saves the musical sequences for moments of establishing larger emotional expressions of the narrative. Early on, the choice feels clumsy and the movie spends some of its runtime ironing out these transitions to figure out a tone and style for these moments to work. Ironically, once this stylistic choice falls into a more comfortable place and the director’s staging of classic Elton performances weave seamlessly into the grander moments of magical realism, the movie tastefully chooses to use this technique less frequently.
Like Elton himself, the theatricality of the film functions as the glittery packaging that conceals a more complex and substantive character piece.
This is a star-making performance from Egerton, who some may remember as the lead in the hard-R comic adaptation “The Kingsman: Secret Service” and its 2017 sequel. He fully embodies the role and even performs many of the songs himself, closely approximating Elton’s warm vocal inflections. His chemistry with Bell and their portrayal of a discovered brotherhood and a fraught professional relationship drive the film and keep it from devolving into a cheap parody or “Saturday Night Live” impersonation.
“Rocketman” takes stylistic risks that don’t always pay off its ambitions, but the film never falls off the sturdy path laid out by the strength of its storytelling. Elton John’s timeless music sets a steady beat to nod your head along to and the layered, yearning performance by Taron Egerton keeps the movie’s more unruly pieces from flying off the emotional core of the experience.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He freelances for both print and online outlets.