The much-anticipated Elton John biopic reinvents the movie musical with a blast of raw energy.
Taking the old-fashioned highs of an MGM musical and pairing them with the deep lows of an addiction drama, Rocketman is a turbo-charged rock fantasia that pushes hard against the boundaries of the medium as it zips through the first four decades of Elton John’s life. The songs explode from the screen, time jumps catapult the story forward with exhilarating élan, and even the emotional stuff lands, for the most part. Sure, Elton John purists will be here until Christmas pointing out the flaws in the chronology and the liberties taken with real-life events, but they’ll be doing it while dancing in the aisles.
It’s a credit to director Dexter Fletcher, who really comes of age as a filmmaker here, that any thoughts of Bohemian Rhapsody fade away in the first few minutes (Fletcher was parachuted in to help finish that Queen biopic). While there are some superficial parallels between the two films, he’s saved all his good ideas for Rocketman. From the opening blast of “The Bitch Is Back,” which thrusts a young Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley) into a glorious, sepia-tinged dance routine outside his northwest London home, the movie is filled with vividly choreographed, imaginatively staged, wow-isn’t-cinema-great? moments.
If there’s one thing Rocketman does have in common with Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s a commanding central performance. Like Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury, Taron Egerton combats a lack of close physical resemblance by nailing John’s physicality in telling detail: He’s a flamboyant showman onstage but almost diffident off it, with an endearing boyish quality. John’s especially sheepish around his bullying manager and lover, John Reid (Richard Madden), a reminder that beneath all the ginormous sunglasses and feathers, Elton John was still a kid craving the love his parents denied him. Happily, the screenplay (by Billy Elliot’s Lee Hall) keeps the psychoanalysis on the right side of mawkish, smartly framing the film around a group-therapy session that enables John to act as a kind of unreliable narrator of his own story.
There are moments when the energy flags, almost as if the movie is taking a much-needed breather. The transition from gifted tyro to full-blown megastar lacks the finesse of what follows, although Jamie Bell is typically terrific as Elton’s songwriter partner Bernie Taupin, the angel to Reid’s devil.
The early family stuff is a bit beige too, and despite Bryce Dallas Howard’s best efforts (and a decent accent), Rocketman can’t quite decide whether Elton’s mom was a heartless monster or a put-upon woman just doing her best. It’s fair to say this is not a movie of complex female characters, and the one it does have deserves better than to spend the final act buried beneath terrifying aging prosthetics.
But Rocketman gets far more right than it gets wrong. There’s no sugarcoating of the drugs- and-booze abuse, but it doesn’t lean too hard on the clichés of white lines and endless empties, either. There’s even—gasp—a sex scene between Elton and Reid that doesn’t lapse into coyness. It feels like a progressive moment: a significant step forward in this retro rush of a musical.
Cast and crew
Bryce Dallas Howard
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