[su_dropcap]A[/su_dropcap]s an amateur pianist, I remember eagerly awaiting the chance to see Elton John in concert. His studio work was so intricate, I was sure there was no way he could play all those trills and fills and sing at the same time. I could watch and learn easier versions of his songs and save myself a lot of work. Much to my surprise, John actually built on the album versions of his songs, beautifully folding suspended seconds and fourths into his melodies. It was a final affirmation that Elton John isn’t just some talented dude, he’s a transcendent and transformational figure in rock history. Critics have dismissed his body of work as an overly varnished veneer, while the tabloids feasted on his unhinged flamboyance and apocalyptic taste for drugs, drink, and sex. Rocketman depicts a star who seemed destined to burn bright and brief, only to defy the odds and endure for the ages. Like his music, Elton John is still standing.
The story begins with a sweaty, broken John (Taron Egerton), bedecked in a glittering costume, as he staggers into an AA meeting. Rocketman uses this group discussion as a framing device, wherein John can navigate through the tumultuous jungle of his childhood and up the jagged slope of success. We flashback to a young Reg Dwight (Kit Connor)–John’s vanilla-bland birth name–as he struggles with his father’s icy indifference and his mother’s cheerful cruelty. His grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) resolves to be the one reliable presence in the Dwight household. Reg quickly displays perfect pitch and a prodigal intuition for the piano, something his parents greet with a bewildered shrug. Ivy enrolls him at the Royal Academy of Music, but it isn’t long before Reg is drawn to the liberating force of rock and roll. He takes on the stage name Elton John, links up with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and his ascent to the musical stratosphere begins.
In many ways, Rocketman feels like a spiritual cousin to Bohemian Rhapsody. Dexter Fletcher, this film’s director, also co-directed Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired. It’s not just that both films depict contemporaries, or that John and Freddie Mercury were gay superstars who conquered a staunchly heterosexual world. Rocket and Rhapsody also follow very similar story arcs: Both singers grappled with aloof parents who didn’t know what to make of them, ignorant studio executives who thought their music stood awkwardly against what was popular at the time, and the seductive destruction contained within the fame and fortune they worked so hard to get. Finally, John and Mercury dealt with John Reid (Richard Madden), a smooth-talking manager who leaches and exploits. In both films, Reid is portrayed as a slithering sociopath.
But where Rhapsody deploys the music of Queen in a traditional way, Rocketman utilizes Elton John’s catalogue as a full-on supporting character. Egerton and his co-stars belt out the singer’s biggest hits in sweeping musical numbers that match up to the dramatic content of the scene that features them. It’s a plot device that feels similar to Across the Universe, another relative of this film. This technique endows Rocketman with more of the shimmering surface of a musical than a plain old biopic. If you can buy into this gimmick and you’re at least a casual fan of John’s discography, your affection toward this film will probably be enhanced.
From a narrative standpoint, it’s probably fitting that if John gets dissed as being overly polished, this biopic suffers from the same flaw. Many of the puzzle pieces of the film’s plot snap together a little too precisely: The Meet Cute between John and Taupin seems contrived and cinematic. Dick James (Stephen Graham), the oily, blustery suit who served as John’s first manager, issues the same tart putdowns every musician in every movie like this has to endure. The movie regards John’s parents and John Reid as convenient, one-dimensional villains whose primary functions are to issue withering criticisms about his music and private life, which send him straight toward the path of annihilation.
That said, Rocketman still offers steady entertainment. Egerton is absolutely phenomenal as Elton John, and does all his own singing throughout the film. Bell turns in great work as one of the few calming influences in John’s life. Tate Donovan makes a welcome cameo as the off-kilter owner of the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. All the performances are spot-on, while John’s music remains as catchy as ever. These strengths are usually enough to power the movie when it threatens to sink into a groove of clichés. Mostly, I found Rocketman to be a simple, straightforward story of an endlessly complicated man. It streamlines Elton John’s narrative in the same manner I expected when I saw the man in concert: It’s more sanitized and takes fewer chances, but that also keeps the film from true greatness. Geniuses don’t take shortcuts.
121 minutes. Rated R.