If there’s one thing Dexter Fletcher’s musical biopic Rocketman wants to tell you about Elton John, played here by Taron Egerton, it’s that the former Reginald Dwight’s musical talent is seemingly supernatural. Gifted at a young age with the ability to play complex classical music on the piano he’d just heard only seconds prior and to compose a tune in mere minutes, his ability was nearly unparalleled by any of his peers. It served as an escape for him, both from his dreary homelife with an unhappy, bitter mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a stern, mean father (Steven Mackintosh), and the English middle class at large.
An early fascination with Elvis led Reggie down the path of becoming a rock and roll star, and, upon reaching adulthood, a meeting at a record company office would put him in contact with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), whose lyrics would perfectly compliment John’s sensibility. The two then embark to the US, where after a residency at an LA nightclub, the two become incredibly famous. John’s life story is presented a bit scrambled — songs occur out of their chronological release order, but who really gives a shit, honestly — but it’s told frankly, with enough sex, drugs and rock and roll to fill up an entire Page 6 several times over. He falls in love with John Reid (Richard Madden, nearly the exact opposite of Aidan Gillen’s flattering portrayal in Bohemian Rhapsody), and endures a nasty break-up while being continually isolated by his ever-growing fame and addiction. It’d make for a pretty good movie, right? Yeah. Well, is this one any good? Sort of!
The key problem with Rocketman is that Fletcher is torn between two poles: At one end, he wants to make both a jukebox musical about John’s life that feels like an honest-to-god old Hollywood revue, with crane shots looking down at scores of dancers and so on, and at the other, he wants to make a traditional biopic, one with a redemptive arc that makes our hero realize that his drug abuse and promiscuity were wrong. The latter informs the film’s horrible framing device, which shows John at an AA meeting, in full sequins-streaked devil costume, narrating the story of his life, and each time we return to the film’s “present,” it is such a buzz and pace-kill that one could easily imagine how much the movie would be improved by its absence.
Again, if you’ve seen Walk Hard, you’ve practically already got the cliche bingo card already filled out in your head (though it may disappoint you to realize that no sinks were harmed in the making of this film). Fletcher’s heart is in the right place, but I really do wish he’d just been able to make the lavish Julie Taymor-influenced stage musical that it seems that he wished to make. See, when Rocketman is good, it’s often quite a joy to watch — “Your Song,” whose genesis we witness at John’s mother’s piano and “Tiny Dancer,” framed here as Elton’s tear-stained lament about Taupin leaving him alone at a party — get to the heart of the emotional matter in a compelling fashion.
But even the biopic framework and that identity crisis can’t totally stop Rocketman from being affecting, and that is entirely due to how well-cast Egerton is here. It’s weird how under-heralded he is as a performer, because in between Kingsman movies, he’s been excellent in his more serious roles. It’s a bummer that more people didn’t turn out for Eddie the Eagle, because he shows off a smart and fearless commitment to his character in that film as well. I mean, he’s such a vibrant, intense presence that the movie roars to life once he hits his first true musical number (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), and the following hour is as compelling and more enjoyable in this awful genre since Jamie Foxx won an Oscar. In fact, he’s so good as John that he’ll make you wonder how Tom Hardy was ever considered for the part, which would have made this movie… well, probably not as good as it currently is.
Perhaps the secret to it is that his performance isn’t just caricature — sure, the right notes are hit (and his smile is perfect) — but he’s allowed to make Elton into a fully-realized human being. His pain feels realer than the work done in most of these biopics, and his work helps to smooth over so many of Fletcher’s narrative cracks. Honestly, Rami Malek’s performance in Bohemian Rhapsody(which Fletcher assisted to completion after Bryan Singer’s firing) looks like dinner theater compared to this, and Egerton fearlessly sings his heart out, a sharp contrast to whatever horrible blend of Malek’s low notes and Freddie Mercury’s highs were digitally fused (that’s just a minor example, as there are a bevy of other, more significant reasons not to watch that film). Rocketman isn’t the best possible version of itself, but it does have the best possible man cast at its center.