The storied life and career of Sir Elton John has long deserved its own movie, and after 20 years of development by John as executive producer, Rocketman launches into flight. Directed by Dexter Fletcher, the film has been drawing comparisons to another recent rock-star biopic (which was also directed by Fletcher, after filling in last minute for Bryan Singer’s departure), but as John was markedly different from Bohemian Rhapsody’s late protagonist, Freddie Mercury, Rocketman is light years different.
To aptly depict a man who immersed himself in spectacle and extravagance, Rocketman is told through a bold and fantastical musical production, with Elton (Taron Egerton) and various other characters who played roles in his life breaking into famous works by the singer/songwriter, from early singles such as “Crocodile Rock,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Your Song” to later-career hits such as “I Want Love.” The good news is this musical treatment works extremely well, without being too indulgent (see Julie Taymor’s 2007 Beatles epic, Across the Universe—my apologies to its fans!).
However, the film still seems restrained in certain respects, thanks to the formulaic nature of the biopic, and the depiction of his homosexuality feels somewhat guarded (except for a passionate love scene, which is supposedly the first gay love scene in a mainstream film). But for a mainstream audience with middling knowledge of Elton’s life, Rocketman should still serve as a fun, digestible ride through his catalog and life, from its dizzying highs to its tragic lows.
The film opens with Elton stomping confidently down a long hallway in a red, bedazzled, winged devil costume to—we assume—a stage to knock out another live performance, but instead, he heads into a group rehab meeting. There, he lists his demons: alcohol abuse, drug addiction, sex addiction, bulimia and shopping addiction. (At various points throughout the film, we revert back to this group-therapy setting to hear Elton discuss his life, and we see him gradually strip away his costume as he realizes what drives his addictions in the first place.)
Suddenly, Elton’s 5-year-old self, Reginald Dwight, appears to him, and the child leads the first musical number, “The Bitch Is Back,” transitioning us into a flashback of his childhood in England, where his vaguely uninterested mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his loving grandmother (Gemma Jones) respectively ignore and nurture his remarkable talent to play the piano by ear. His distant and cold father, Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), brushes away young Reggie’s gentle requests for hugs, and the family together break into a soft rendition of “I Want Love.”
It’s this craving for love and affection that would drive much of Elton’s clamoring for validation from others, but his exceptional musical talents carry him through his youth—as depicted in the stellar musical number that transitions teenage Reggie into adulthood. His dreams to be a rock-&-roller are stoked early on, as he becomes a session player for Motown groups touring through England. This is where he has his first homosexual dalliance with a young backup singer.
The film picks up momentum when he meets his creative partner, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). The two hit it off instantly and together write Elton’s most famous songs, landing him a record contract and an American tour. We’re then treated to his legendary show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles (cue the palm-tree montage), where his performance uplifts himself and everyone in the audience, propelling him to stardom—and to meeting his future business manager and lover, John Reid (Richard Madden). Believing himself to have found the love he’s always wanted, Elton succumbs to Reid’s cutthroat business decisions and influence, spending money on extravagant purchases and hedonistic whims. From there, it’s one tragic downward spiral to another, fed by booze, eating disorders and even an ill-fated marriage to recording engineer Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker).
As Elton, Egerton is phenomenal. After gaining fame in the Kingsman action-comedy franchise, the handsome English lad could possibly be taken even more seriously after this role, as he sheds all vanity to play the paunchy, balding musician. Egerton’s own voice is used, and the full spectrum of his skills and commitment help him to carry this large-scale monster of a film.
Biopic formula be damned, the musical and dance numbers are brilliant, the drama is gripping, and the spectacular attention to Elton’s outrageous costumes is delightful. But what Rocketman really brings home for me is a newfound appreciation for Elton John and his music. The nuance of the titular song is explored closely when it soundtracks his attempted suicide and subsequent dive back into performing, where we see his otherworldly stage persona belie a deeply troubled, dejected man. Rocketman showcases the human inside all those sequins and feathers.
Rocketman was directed by Dexter Fletcher; written by Lee Hall; and stars Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell and Richard Madden.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.