Seven months after Bohemian Rhapsody gave us a heavily sanitized, watered-down history of Freddie Mercury and Queen, we finally get a no holds barred, fantastical, Behind the Music-esque film about one of music’s most colorful and prolific icons. Rocketman is every bit the movie Rhapsody could have been—had it not taken the safe, middle road—and as a result, the Elton John biopic hits the finish line as a wholly entertaining and emotionally gripping film—not only in comparison but in its own right.
Starring the stunningly talented Taron Egerton as John, alongside Jamie Bell as 40-year collaborator Bernie Taupin, Rocketman begins with John strutting into an AA meeting (in 1990, in real life) and then telling his life story to the fellow addicts gathered around him. After flashing back to his early-50s childhood in Pinner, Middlesex, the film doesn’t skimp on the drama at any point along the way, whether it’s John’s own dad Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) shunning the boy with an almost religious conviction or his mom Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) telling him he’ll never amount to anything and to give up on his dreams. The fact that we all know he’ll eventually become one of the top-selling artists in history makes it all the more rewarding, though, as we watch the little kid struggle to overcome his own parents’ belittlement.
It doesn’t take long, though, for Elton to leave his family (along with his birth name of Reggie Dwight) far behind him as he begins to make a name for himself on the music scene. When he pairs with Taupin in 1967, he’s off and running, and his rise into the mainstream begins in earnest with a superbly choreographed performance of “Crocodile Rock” at L.A.’s Troubadour in 1970.
Director Dexter Fletcher (who also brought Rhapsody home following the dismissal of Bryan Singer late in production), takes the audacious script from Lee Hall (Victoria and Abdul) and absolutely runs with it, never shying away from the cold hard truth of John’s wild-’n-crazy life and wisely giving the entire spectacle a dream-like feel, full of not only images but entire scenes that play like something that could only be cooked up in the head of a drug-addled, creative-genius rock star.
Rocketman has a distinctively original flair even while evoking other musicals, such as Julie Taymor’s 2007 sleeper film Across the Universe or even mainstream hits like Grease and Rent. Cinematographer George Richmond, in his fourth collaboration with Fletcher, offers up all kinds of creative takes along the way, including intricate tracking shots, muted selective coloring, montages, and even a clever bit of splicing during a recreated music video toward at end of the film.
The real star of the show, however (alongside John’s timeless music) is the mind-blowing Egerton, who not only does his own singing throughout Rocketman but completely makes the movie his own (and John’s story his), inhabiting the soul of the musical legend. It’s a groundbreaking performance that rivals Bradley Cooper’s gritty turn in last year’s A Star is Born for its capacity to break your heart and amaze you at the same time. And that’s before you remember Jackson Maine is fictional, and Elton John is somehow still alive… and going strong.
John himself, credited as an executive producer on the film, may not be proud of everything that happened on the road that got him where he is, but Rocketman is an excellent, fitting showcase of the underlying talent that has kept him there for almost fifty years. Still standing, indeed.