It’s almost unfair that “Rocketman,” a new movie about the rise, fall and rise of Elton John, is being released just months after the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The echoes and overlaps are inescapable: the films cover about the same time period, they feature the same villainous manager who seduces and abandons both heroes and they were even directed by the same filmmaker – which makes comparison just as inevitable.
Does “Rocketman” deliver the same frisson as “Bo Rhap,” which overcame scrambled chronology and genre clichés to become one of the most pleasurable movies of 2018? Yes and no. Audiences need to know going in that they’re in for a completely different approach and aesthetic experience, with a movie that is less traditional biopic than a jukebox musical that feels reverse-engineered for a splashy Broadway makeover.
The theatricality and flamboyant style is utterly appropriate for the singer’s own outrageous stage persona, and both director Dexter Fletcher and his star, Taron Egerton, commit to it with a go-for-broke wholeheartedness that is nothing but admirable. As on-point as that choice is, though, it entails sacrifices that may well leave many viewers feeling deprived of the musical and narrative catharsis they crave.
To its credit, “Rocketman” teaches the audience how to watch it within its first few minutes, when John – kitted out in a flame-hued phoenix costume, replete with feathers and elaborately Beadazzled horns – enters a 12-step meeting and announces his addictions: alcohol, cocaine, sex, shopping, bulimia, weed and prescription medication. The flashback-friendly framing device firmly in place, “Rocketman” takes us back to postwar England, where a young Elton John, birth name Reg Dwight (Matthew Illesley), struggles to make himself understood to an emotionally remote father (Steven Mackintosh) and an insensitive mother (Bryce Dallas Howard). A rousing production number of “The Bitch is Back” sets the scene, with the Dwights’ middle-class neighborhood rendered in a nostalgic, desaturated palette while Egerton and Illesley are thrown into attention-getting relief, in sharp, eye-popping color.
From there, “Rocketman” becomes a fantasia of dreamlike set pieces, in which John’s greatest hits are used to capture the mood of the moment. A teenage Reg (Kit Connor) channels Jerry Lee Lewis while he rocks out in the pub to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” a sequence in which Egerton gracefully appears to a story that serves little more than to set up the next song, which in turn captures a particular highlight – or, more likely, lowlight – of John’s meteoric and, ultimately, impressively enduring career.
The result is a film that feels strangely superficial, even though its conceit is a psychological portrait of an artist excavating his deepest psychological material. Along with his monstrous parents, the most devilish figure in John’s past is his lover and manager John Reid, silkily portrayed by Richard Madden, in a performance that unexpectedly answers the musical question: What would “Honky Cat” sound like as performed by Elton John and Robert Palmer? (The answer: Pretty good!)
Individual viewers’ mileage will vary as to whether “Rocketman’s” just-off-plumb arrangements are as pleasing as the beloved songs they grew up with. While the more open-minded among John fans will welcome the reworkings, others may find the new orchestrations disorienting, like faded facsimiles of the far more potent originals.
Hermetically sealed within John’s own recollections, “Rocketman” takes place in a world devoid of musical and pop-cultural context. With the exception of a brief mention of Leon Russell, Neil Diamond and the Beach Boys (“the geniuses of American music,” according to the singer), the film feels as isolated and as cut off as John becomes when the excesses of wealth, fame and insecurity take their self-destructive toll. (One montage is set to “Pinball Wizard,” which John performed in the movie “Tommy” but, plopped in without explanation here, feels weirdly out of place.)
Written by “Billy Elliott’s” Lee Hall, “Rocketman” often recalls that earlier film in its musical-theater earnestness. Occasionally succumbing to the perfunctory, episodic and expository dangers of the biopic form, the movie sometimes feels like an oddly joyless and even maudlin affair, as John revisits the darkest points of his life. When he performs “Benny and the Jets,” one of the 1970s’ most exhilarating rock anthems, it’s reframed as a bitter, angry rebuke.
As uneven as “Rocketman” can be, Egerton is consistently good, his singing voice up to the task at hand and his confidence lending him just enough swagger to wear John’s increasingly campy costumes with off-handed flair. Within a nervy, sometimes dizzying stylistic and chronological hodgepodge – a dash of Bollywood here; a smidgen of magical realism there; and was that an African chorus in the background of John’s misbegotten wedding to Renate Blauel? – Egerton exerts a steadying, singularly charismatic force, skirting glib impersonation to becomes an interpretive instrument in his own right.
Egerton is reason alone to see “Rocketman.” It may be Elton John’s story, but this is his song.