3.5 out of 5 stars.
Biographical movies always play fast and loose with the facts, often shaping and twisting them to fashion a more cinematic story. “Rocketman,” which tells the story of the life and career of musician Elton John, is no exception. But “Rocketman,” directed by Dexter Fletcher (who, incidentally, took over directing duties from Bryan Singer after he was fired from 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”), is able to get away with this a bit by tells Elton’s story in the form of a movie musical, as opposed to a music drama. The resulting film combines fantasy with reality to tell a story that spans Elton’s childhood up to his entering rehab in 1990 in a way that is largely fun and creative despite falling into some of the usual music biopic clichés.
The film opens with Elton (played by Taron Egerton) entering rehab after struggling with drug and alcohol addiction for years. His stint in rehab serves as a framing device for the film, as this world-weary Elton looks back on his life, starting with his childhood. Elton’s parents (played by Steve Mackintosh and Bryce Dallas Howard) were mostly either cold or absent, and he is largely encouraged to develop his obviously innate musical talent by his grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones). As an adult, he changes his name from Reggie Dwight to Elton John and is introduced to songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). They both form a close friendship and working relationship, and after writing many songs together, their manager sets them up with a show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. The show is smash, and Elton’s career takes off, but he is hindered along the way by his relationship with his lover and manager John Reid (Richard Madden), who drives Elton into a life of drugs, drinking, and opulence.
“Rocketman” provides great fan service to those who have loved Elton John’s music for years. The film has a stacked soundtrack of 21 of Elton’s hits performed by the cast, plus a new song titled “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” which Elton John and Taron Egerton perform together. A lot of Elton’s elaborate costumes he wore in real life are recreated for the film as well (stay through the beginning of the end credits for a side-by-side comparison). And while it provides a fair overview of a lot of Elton’s life and career, it shouldn’t be entirely accepted as gospel by those who are less familiar with his work. Elton is depicted as writing and performing many of his hit songs long before they were ever released, but this is where the musical format really works, because the songs are placed in the film not so much as markers of where we are at in Elton’s career, but where we are at in his life. The lyrics of these songs tell a story, and they are placed at points in the story where they work the best, even if they didn’t really exist at that particular point in time. A few details are obviously very contrived, however, such as Elton taking part of his new name from John Lennon after seeing a photo of the Beatles. But perhaps the weakest element of the film is how, after Elton’s initial performance at the Troubajour, the story almost entirely loses track of time. Within a few seconds and a rather uninformative montage, we go suddenly from Elton being a virtual unknown to being one of the biggest stars in the world, with several hit records under his belt. You could attribute this to the story being told from the perspective of older Elton’s decidedly not sober brain, but it mostly just feels like awkward storytelling.
And I’m not entirely sure, despite this being a very personal and heartfelt movie that focuses less on Elton’s career and more on the man himself, that the story really gets a sense of its protagonist until the very end. The strongest parts of the story in terms of character development are the beginning, which depicts Elton’s childhood and the lack of love he received from his parents, and the ending, when he comes to terms with that. We don’t really get a solid resolution to his turbulent and heartbreaking relationship with John Reid, but we do get a great feeling for the love and friendship he and Bernie have for each other, claiming, as Elton states toward the beginning of the film, that they have never had an argument. A lot of what comes in between falls into the aforementioned category of music biopic clichés: the constant drugs, the inevitable breaking up of longtime music partners, and so on.
The film works at its best when it brings elements of fantasy into its music numbers, which fortunately happens a lot. We see Elton and the crowd at the Troubadour literally ascend as they listen to Elton’s music for the first time; we frequently get adult Elton seeing his younger self, like at the bottom of a pool in the “Rocketman” number; and “Honky Cat” is a fun, sort of old school movie musical duet between Elton and John that helps transition Elton from his old life of anonymity to his new one of fame and fortune. These over-the-top numbers fit nicely with the over-the-top stage persona that Elton ultimately develops.
A lot of the success of this movie also rests with the cast, who do a killer job. Egerton, who also does his own singing in the film, occasionally sounds like maybe he is trying too hard to do an Elton John impression in some of the songs, but overall turns in a fantastic performance, allowing himself to melt into the role both physically and emotionally. Bell gets the opportunity to give life to the other half of Elton’s music who doesn’t typically receive as much recognition, and makes their friendship completely believable.
“Rocketman” isn’t flawless or groundbreaking, but it’s a really fun and entertaining telling of the life of one of the most iconic musicians in the world. In fact, it’s one of the better original movie musicals to come out of Hollywood in recent years, proving Fletcher’s adeptness at working in this genre when he is given free rein. But while the movie often fuses fantasy with reality, it’s important to recognize that this film’s primary intent isn’t to provide the viewer with an accurate timeline of Elton John’s life, but rather to get to the essence of just who he is.
Runtime: 121 minutes. Rated R.