Last year, the extremely divisive Bohemian Rhapsody opened some doors for filmmakers. For whatever reason, the industry had forgotten the musical biopic over the past decade. That’s not to say there were no good films about music, with Inside Llewyn Davis, Love & Mercy and A Star Is Born nabbing much of the acclaim. Still, there’s something refreshing about watching the stories of your favorite musicians creating their mark on the world. That’s why it made perfect sense that the theatrical Elton John would get the movie treatment. With Rocketman, the young star Taron Egerton showcases incredible talent. Shockingly, Rocketman might live up to the promise of an Elton John biopic.
Rocketman opens with Elton (Egerton) as a child and follows him into the early 1980s. It covers the famed pianist and pop singer’s most prolific time of his life, including his breakout at the Troubador. Along the way, he meets his writing partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and becomes a superstar. However, after joining up with a new manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden), Elton begins to embrace drugs and sex. As Elton works through his issues, addiction runs rampant throughout his life and he struggles to get back on the right path.
Director Dexter Fletcher, who handled many of the reshoots on Bohemian Rhapsody, gets to craft this film from the beginning. While Rocketman does devolve into classic biopic tropes at times, the choice to create a jukebox musical helps it feel fresh. Fletcher uses the choreography and dream sequences to creatively explore the legend’s musical output. Rocketman gets the benefit of crafting elaborate set-pieces and embraces the darker sides of Elton’s life (to a point). For a studio film, this was about the best kind of story you would expect.
The real engine for the film comes from three sources. Egerton continues his ascent in Hollywood and cues up his musical talent to sell the experience. While he does not sound exactly like Elton John, he nails the attitude and style that made him an icon. Egerton’s transformation gets help from the makeup team, but he disappears into the role. Even when he pouts, it’s hard to take your eyes off of Egerton, making Rocketman a satisfying and entertaining experience.
Bell also brings some much-needed life to the film. While many in the film come across as despicable, Bell captures the optimism that made Taupin the perfect writing partner for John. He never pushes buttons and comes off as a loveable kid who stumbled into an incredible world. Bell’s ability to play humble and excited brings a “kid in a candy store” vibe to Rocketman that keeps spirits up. Meanwhile, Madden excels as the devil on John’s shoulder. The man gets to ham it up while showing off his physique. He continues the extraordinary bounce back he’s received over the past year and a half. Madden adds an element of danger to the film, and I challenge you to not be charmed by him.
Ultimately the glaring issues for Rocketman come from its fairly basic structure. The frustrations with John’s parents are real, but they feel like a surface-level exploration of those feelings. Rocketman loses its way after the first hour and becomes repetitive at times. While John’s life has documented downturns, the man’s has been legendarily happy for decades. The film struggles to bridge that gap at times, and this creates small dings in its armor.
You would rather have a film hit the high points of Rocketman (like the Troubador or “Saturday Night’s Alright”) than become a milquetoast version of a rock star’s life. Egerton’s excellent performance drives the success of the film and becomes a star-making performance as a result. For John enthusiasts, this scratches an itch. Yet enough of his life is left untouched where we could legitimately see sequels or other takes on John down the road. It’s a wild ride, and one that’s at least approaches the silly and theatrical life of the legend.