By Pat Mullen
How wonderful life is when you’re in Rocketman’s world. This dazzling Elton John biopic should go down as one of the great film musicals. Directed with inspired pizazz by Dexter Fletcher, who completed Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired, and played with fiery perfection by Taron Egerton as Sir Elton, Rocketman soars. It honours the man and his music with original, enthralling flair.
Egerton performs John’s songs with gusto while capturing his unique pitch, but the rawness of his vocals gives Rocketman its edge. This is a portrait of John before he’s confidently found his voice. Egerton gives a fearlessly committed performance that one sees too rarely in a studio film.
Comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody are inevitable, but there are few reasons to relate the Freddie Mercury flick with Rocketman since they have little in common beyond Fletcher’s credit and their award-worthy performances of rock ‘n’ roll icons. As a film, Rocketman is far more technically accomplished and artistically adventurous than most contemporary biopics.
Rocketman follows biopic formula by charting John’s journey from his humble beginnings as Reginald Dwight to his mid-career success as Elton John. It takes audiences to his home where the young Reggie pursued music to escape his aloof mother (a delightfully campy Bryce Dallas Howard) and absent father (a stoically stiff Steven Mackintosh). John tells his story in retrospect when he appears at an AA meeting in a bejewelled devil costume and reflects on his life in a jukebox-style diary of highs and lows.
Fletcher mixes biopic convention and musical theatricality. Some songs appear as standard performances as John hones his craft, but others appear as spectacular numbers that recall Julie Taymor’s Beatles’ phantasmagoria Across the Universe with their wildly impressionistic interpretations of rock classics. These sequences highlight transformative moments in John’s life.
Standout numbers include John’s breakthrough performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles where the crowd levitates euphorically during “Crocodile Rock.” John wrestles with his inner demons during the feverishly staged “Rocketman” number, which conveys his struggles with alcoholism and addiction. The song explodes when he performs at the 1975 concert at Dodger Stadium and gets off on his biggest high: the stage.
Even the conventional numbers let Rocketman fly as Egerton develops his character. The film centres on John’s relationship with collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) as their songwriting sessions prove therapeutic for John as he heals his family troubles and embraces his sexuality. Bell is the heart of the film as Taupin, who is John’s rock and uses the power of music to let his friend be free. Egerton’s performance of “Your Song” is especially touching when Taupin presents John with the lyrics after the singer comes out. Egerton finds John’s voice and Bell offers an assured nod of unwavering love.
The film admirably depicts John’s sexuality without shying away. The much-hyped sex scenes between Egerton and a terrific Richard Madden, playing John’s toxic manager/boyfriend John Reid, are relatively tame, but revolutionary for a studio film. The flamboyancy of Fletcher’s film, from its fantastic numbers to its flashy note-perfect costumes, finds the perfect marriage of subject and style. Rocketman delivers a song straight from the heart.