There are two ingredients in the Elton John biopic Rocketman that are so alchemically perfect that the rest of the movie could tank, and it would still be a blast. One of them is, of course, John’s music. The other is Taron Egerton’s portrayal of the singer, arguably his biggest performance since his breakout in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Luckily, the film has enough going for it that it doesn’t have to rely solely on that two-pronged charm offensive.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher, Rocketman wisely forgoes being a straightforward biopic. That path has been and will remain scorched earth ever since Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story took the genre to task, a note that missed last year’s awards season darling Bohemian Rhapsody (which, incidentally, also has Fletcher’s name attached to it, as he was brought on to replace Bryan Singer). Instead, Rocketman, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, lives up to its billing as a “musical fantasy,” with characters bursting into song independent of performing onstage.
It’s also less a history than it is a tale of overcoming addiction — though the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Perhaps in part because John is still alive, the film doesn’t try for a comprehensive picture of the singer’s life, instead following him up until he got clean and sober almost three decades ago. Rocketman even begins with John (Egerton) ditching a performance at Madison Square Garden and going straight to rehab still dressed in a glitzy orange jumpsuit, complete with wings and a cap with devil horns.
From there, as John relates his past and problems with alcoholism, drug abuse, sex addiction, bulimia, and anger management to the gathered group, the film takes a mostly linear journey through his childhood and ascent to stardom, going from Reginald Dwight to Elton John. It’s a lot to tackle, but there’s something fitting about that insomuch as “a lot” seems to be the very ethos that John embodies. John is an artist known for flamboyance, as the countless costumes Egerton dons not-so-subtly remind us. At one point, John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) asks if he doesn’t think it’s too much, to which John replies, “People don’t pay to see Reg Dwight. They pay to see Elton John.”
That line is one that Rocketman ultimately has a little trouble walking, in no small part because the question of who’s going to be paying to watch an Elton John biopic doesn’t have a clear answer. Some will want a greatest hits album put to film; others will want a closer look at the life of an artist they idolize. Rocketman tries to be both (there’s noticeably no mention of John’s flops), and almost succeeds, were it not for an overly saccharine ending that goes straight for that fatal historical movie flaw of ending with pictures of its real-life subject.
Egerton, who will hopefully be able to break out of his Eggsy mold after this, is putting in the kind of hard work that renders that indulgence unnecessary. Like John, he has metric tons of innate charm, and the role is one that demands every ounce of it be put to use as Rocketman travels into startlingly unflattering territory.
This is a film that could easily coast on the appeal of its songs; there will always be something thrilling about a full-blown musical, as evidenced by the way The Greatest Showman took the world by storm despite being, at best, a mediocre movie. But Rocketman doesn’t shy away from its subject’s worst moments. John acts out often, and finds he must apologize each time. When he offers an apology, the answer is always simply, “I know,” rather than immediate, easy absolution. It’s a small detail, but that sense that such forgiveness is an ongoing process feels real in a way that other parts of the movie don’t. There’s still a little hedging that occurs when it comes to trying to show off the real Elton John — the idea that his stage name and his love of sequins might be hiding somebody that we don’t actually know is one that Fletcher touches upon but never totally engages with.
John’s sexuality is treated with a similarly tenuous balance. Though his homosexuality is, refreshingly, treated as perfectly normal (unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman is totally unafraid of going the distance), much of that path is drawn in too-broad strokes. His first kiss with a man is a surprise smooch planted on him by a black musician without any real explanation, he’s first outed by that same musician (who has no other scenes, nor identified by name) over drinks in a conversation that’s remarkably chill for what it is, and his later, brief marriage to a woman plays like a footnote.
Still, Rocketman is an all-star affair from top to bottom (the rest of the cast includes Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh, Stephen Graham, and Tom Bennett), and hits every metaphorical chord progression it needs to in order to keep things fun. Ultimately, though Lee Hall’s script is perfectly serviceable, it’s whenever the songs begin that the film truly finds its feet. There’s no saying no to John’s work, nor the sumptuous musical fantasia Fletcher has conjured up. It’s the best musical biopic in ages.
Rocketman hits theaters on May 31.