Rocketman is a music biopic that doesn’t like to stray from the music biopic formula. It is, first and foremost, the life and times of Elton John. But director Dexter Fletcher has found a fresh, slightly bonkers way to present a familiar blueprint. Yes, we’ve all seen the music biopic where a popstar finds fame and fortune before descending into drink-and-drugs hell. But have we ever seen a music biopic with a song performed entirely underwater; or a song that causes an entire room of people to inexplicably levitate; or a song that literally explodes Elton John into a firework?
Rocketman is brimming with this kind of invention, each song (all stone-cold classics, of course) spiced with eye-popping visual and emotional embellishments, all deftly placed to tell the story of how a tubby kid from Middlesex called Reggie could ever go on to sell 300 million records. The frequent fantasy flourishes won’t be for everyone, but it feels right that a larger-than-life character earns larger-than-life treatment.
Taron Egerton is brilliant, an electrifying presence.
It covers a fair bit of time – from early childhood to middle-aged rehab – and so has to race through some key milestones. But appropriately, the music is left to do the heavy lifting. John’s entire ill-fated marriage to Renate Blauel (played by Celinde Schoenmaker), for example, is zipped through in all of ten minutes, but the music takes care of the exposition; through it, we understand why a lonely man might turn to a marriage he didn’t want. We can fill in the blanks. It’s a story told by feeling and rhythm as much as dialogue.
That’s important, given we’re talking about Elton John. As supremely talented as he is operatically obnoxious, this is a man whose daddy issues also come served with a side of mummy issues. (Sporting a good Home Counties accent, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Sheila is the film’s only significant female character.) Dogged by insecurities, resentfulness and self-loathing, it’s a character that could feel one-note, but in Taron Egerton’s rich, committed performance we get texture: the genius and the diva wrestling with each other, Elton forever trying to make peace with his inner Reggie. Egerton summons John’s slightly pompous cadence but again, it’s less an impersonation than a feeling that comes through — and he’s brilliant, an electrifying presence. Helpfully, he can really sing, too.
Unlike certain recent films about gay rock icons, this isn’t shy about Elton’s private life. “I have fucked everything that moves,” Elton freely offers at one point, and the film is refreshingly sincere on his sexuality — still unusual for a mainstream film — particularly in his relationship with manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden on striking, seductive form).
Elsewhere, the film doesn’t shirk from depicting his hedonistic lifestyle in bold, R-rated hues. But even in Elton’s darker dalliances with addictions, Fletcher challenges the idea that bleak topics need to be presented bleakly, finding effervescence and warmth everywhere. In fact, some of the film’s best scenes come from the authentic, down-to-earth friendship Elton shares with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (played by Jamie Bell in a gentle, generous performance). It’s far-fetched, and fantastical, yes, but Fletcher still finds room for the humanity.