A rich musical catalog, an underdog’s struggle, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll; while these are the undoubted cliche ingredients for many a biopic on the some of the greatest icons of modern music, it doesn’t mean they are any less captivating. Thus while Rocketman, a chronicle of the rise to fame of Elton John, contains these aforementioned elements it sets itself apart with a truly unique voice and style, much like its protagonist.
Rightfully subtitled a “musical fantasy”, Rocketman delivers a wonderfully delightful and whimsical glimpse into the story of one of rock’s most enduring figures; through its blend of traditional biographical storytelling and creative highlights of imaginative, fantastical bliss, this is a movie that knows it is at times going over the top. But when was Elton John never over the top? Like the man himself, the film is a dazzling display of effervescence, complete with all the many ups and downs that have defined the career of Sir Elton.
From his days as a young child piano prodigy in England to the brilliant displays of his burgeoning talent in America, Rocketman stays true to the biopic structure, yet infuses its narrative with flightful dream sequences, dance numbers, and clever incorporation of Elton John’s vast jukebox of classic songs. Whether it is seeing the young Reginald Dwight (before the adoption of his stage name) imagining himself conducting an orchestra, having the whole town singing and dancing to “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”, floating in mid-air during a performance of “Crocodile Rock”, or blasting off into space while singing “Rocket Man”, the fantasy here not only elevates the journey, but really adds a type of magic to the aura of Elton John and his exceptional musical mind.
For those who did not live during his heyday, it may be hard to imagine the flamboyant splendor that was his live concerts, and so through these dream-like sequences we are transported to a time when audiences who first saw this new kid really did believe they were seeing magic on stage; for those who do indeed have fond memories of his prime in the ’70s and ’80s, these montages are once more a reminder of how utterly unique and fantastical the Elton John experience was. In whichever camp one falls in, director Dexter Fletcher has ensured that the “musical fantasy” that so defined Elton’s music is on full glorious display, for whatever age group.
And yet Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott), also make it clear that while there is fantasy, there is also reality. Perhaps these elaborate images were how he and the fans saw himself, but there was absolutely no amount of fantasy that could mask the spiraling dangers of a life of drugs and alcohol; in tandem with lifelong feelings of inadequacy (despite his audacious costumes and stage persona), Elton John struggled with concealing his homosexuality and finding his true self.
Where last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody (also directed by Fletcher, who took over from Bryan Singer) was criticized for its depiction of Freddie Mercury’s sexuality, Rocketman does not shy away from this important part of John’s life story. Indeed a central theme of the film is loving oneself for who they are, and through a sensitive portrayal of personal doubts and sexuality, the movie ends up championing not just Elton John but all those who have felt undesired because of their differences.
A terrific lead performance from Taron Egerton (who provides his own singing voice) solidifies Rocketman as a superb and thoroughly entertaining film. Beyond a striking resemblance to the young rock star, Egerton is fiercely energetic, extravagant, and ultimately vulnerable; capturing the excitement of writing hit music and a career that skyrockets, juxtaposed with the proverbial rock bottom with thoughts of suicide and time spent in rehab, Egerton’s Elton John is every bit as outlandish as would be expected, while also quite human and moving.
A distant relationship with his father, strained relations with his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), lover/manager, and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) round out the complex portrait of human emotions that Elton John so masterfully kept hidden under the facade of the ultimate showman. Thankfully unlike many similar stories of rock star’s who meet an early demise, Elton John prevailed.
With costumes and set pieces galore, Egerton and the filmmakers have not solely paid great visual tribute to the artist, but have shown they also deeply understand the heart of performers like Elton. It is with this heart, alongside a wonderful dosage of ‘musical fantasy’, that Rocketman succeeds as a most fulfilling biopic. While it may certainly contain all the basic ingredients of any film biography, it is how they are tweaked that makes this movie stand out. Flights of fancy, an emotional grappling of sensitive themes, an outstanding lead performance, and above all an audacious embrace of living life unashamedly have made this a standout musical film. As with Elton John, watching it will surely be an experience not soon forgotten.