It’s hard not to compare Rocketman to Bohemian Rhapsody. They both tell stories of larger than life, flamboyant, at times closeted pop stars that dominated the music scene in the seventies and early eighties. They both, obviously, heavily feature said pop star’s music. They both track the meteoric rise of the pop star through drug-fueled lows and back again. The central performance from an unexpected actor dominates each film, and while Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher didn’t receive credit on Bohemian Rhapsody, he did step in on that film after its original director, Bryan Singer, departed. Hell, both films feature music manager John Reid as a supporting character played by a Game of Thrones actor (Richard Madden for Elton, Aiden Gillen for Freddie). But really, Rocketman is leagues better than Bohemian Rhapsody, for two main reasons: it doesn’t sugar coat or whitewash the story, and it leans into the colorful reputation of the main character. While Rocketman is sometimes messy, it is the bright, bedazzled fantasia spectacle that makes sense for the bright, bedazzled fantasia performer that is Sir Elton John.
The film tracks Elton nee Reginald Dwight as he moves from the quiet son (Matthew Illesley is young Reggie) suffering through his parent’s toxic relationship, to awkward prodigy (Kit Connor is older Reg), to bona fide superstar (Taron Egerton does the heavy lifting as Elton from his early career to his mid-80s renaissance). While the film touches on moments throughout his life, the entire thing is presented as a highly-choreographed, jukebox musical, which works most of the time, give or take Elton literally rocketing off stage during one particularly cringeworthy moment. Egerton is pretty friggin’ fantastic as the extroverted introvert who never met a tune he couldn’t replicate, or a drug he couldn’t ingest. The main relationship in the film is between John and his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (played with quiet reserve by Jamie Bell, though Taupin only exists as a counterpoint to John), though the movie never shies away from John’s other loves, notably his longtime toxic fling with Reid.
Because the veneer over the whole film is the musical-fantasy element, it can be forgiven for some of the by-the-numbers plotting, and seemingly manufactured plot points, two things that were more egregious and off-putting in the completely straightforward Rhapsody. With more freedom here, Fletcher acquits himself nicely, with a wild array of musical numbers that veer from faithful to fantastical, but all serve the film well. Honestly, I’m still not sure if that final number (“I’m Still Standing”) was Egerton placed in the original music video or simply the original version with John. There are certainly liberties the film takes with facts and history, John didn’t really go to rehab when the film suggests he did, didn’t marry Renate when it’s depicted, but again, the narrative jumble doesn’t feel false. I’m sure John never sang a duet with his younger self either.
Rocketman isn’t perfect. Some of the numbers feel a bit flat or unnecessary, and the ups and downs follow a similar pattern we’ve seen in every movie about rock stars with addiction, but it’s still a fairly magical affair, anchored by Egerton’s performance, which deserves every accolade that Rami Malek (deservedly) got thrown at him.
My Grade – B-