Rocketman Deserves to Be a Smash Hit
The new film about the life of Elton John thrives on the otherworldly qualities of pop that staid biopics often refuse to indulge.
It’s inevitable that Rocketman will draw comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody, last year’s smash-hit biopic in the form of a jukebox musical. Both are about hyper-popular rock acts who reigned supreme in the 1970s and ’80s; both are focused on effervescent showmen who spent many years in the closet, and both were—in a manner of speaking—directed by Dexter Fletcher. The direction of Bohemian Rhapsody was, of course, credited to Bryan Singer, but Fletcher was the man who completed that project after Singer was fired midway through filming. Rocketman gives us a chance to see what Fletcher can do when given complete control over a pop musical, and the results are hugely charming.
The music biographies of countless best-selling acts (Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, N.W.A.) tend to follow the same paint-by-numbers blueprint: a brief look at the artist’s childhood, a meeting with a skeptical record executive, a breakout moment on stage, a quick montage of glitz and glamour when record sales get huge, a descent into drug or alcohol abuse, and a triumphant comeback. Rocketman is no different. In tracing Elton John’s journey from his adolescence as a piano prodigy in suburban London to the heights of global fame, it touches on all the usual clichés of this cinematic subgenre. It just manages to do so in the most fizzy, fun fashion, powered by an energetic lead performance from Taron Egerton that goes beyond mimicry.
Unlike, say, Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody or Jamie Foxx in Ray (two Oscar-winning performances), Egerton does all of his own singing as John. It’s a daunting challenge, but one that he rises to ably, aiming for the general spirit of John rather than trying to precisely replicate his mannerisms. Biographical actors often give off a limited and locked-in vibe because they’re trying to reproduce everything about their real-life subjects, down to facial tics and body language. Egerton, the star of the Kingsman spy franchise and last year’s unfortunate Robin Hood remake, understands that exuding charisma is much more important than getting lost in the details; the result is exciting, star-making stuff.
Fletcher, for his part, swerves decisively away from the Bohemian Rhapsody approach of staging concert scenes to resemble the famous events they’re drafted from. While that film ended with a painstaking recreation of Queen’s act at Live Aid—a simulation so exacting that it essentially syncs up with the original footage—Rocketman has no such pretensions. It’s instead presented as a full-blown, Broadway-ready musical, in which every needle drop breaks the fourth wall and sends the film sprinting into total fantasy mode.
Early on, a teenage Elton sits down at a local pub to sing “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” (a song he didn’t actually write until his 20s); the customers quickly break into a choreographed dance number so barnstorming that it carries the performer through to adulthood. Later, when John stages his first concerts in America (a legendary series performed at L.A.’s Troubadour in 1970), he takes the stage to scattered applause and launches into “Crocodile Rock” with so much fervor that he starts to float in the air over his piano. Soon, the entire audience is levitating with him, until they all smash enthusiastically back onto the floor for the chorus. However silly, the moment captures the otherworldly quality that lies at the heart of any great pop song, but one that the directors of staid biographical projects so often refuse to indulge. Fletcher knows that John’s glitzy bravado was crucial to his success, so the director plays it up at every turn. Why shouldn’t he?
The supporting cast are required to play it broad, and some nail it better than others. Bryce Dallas Howard is ludicrous as John’s grumpy mother, Sheila, but Richard Madden evolves from coolly charming to frightening as John’s business manager, John Reid, with whom the singer had a tempestuous and eventually abusive relationship. Best of all the background figures is Jamie Bell as John’s rock-solid writing partner Bernie Taupin, who has written the lyrics to almost all of John’s songs (the pianist himself writes the music). Rocketman posits that Taupin lived the flip side of John’s life—plenty of fame and success, but largely out of the spotlight—and so Bell functions as an empathetic audience surrogate, looking on at John’s best and worst moments without judgment. The soulfulness of Bell’s performance and his chemistry with Egerton are strong enough to lend some emotional grounding to the high-energy movie.
The film’s framing device is a rehab support group where John (dressed as an orange devil) explains the impact of significant moments in his life, a storytelling approach that drags the most during Rocketman’s latter-half exploration of John’s struggle with addiction. Even so, Fletcher uses the songs effectively to essay John’s misery at the height of his fame, suggesting that the singer’s brash onstage persona existed mostly as a cover for his intense self-loathing and the misery of having to stay in the closet. Fletcher isn’t seeking to reinvent a very practiced storytelling formula; he’s just perfecting it. Rocketman is the most enjoyable pop biopic in years, an ideal match for its scintillating subject.