With the success of last year’s Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it might feel too soon for another film about a queer British rock star who soared to fame in the 1970s. But the Elton John biopic “Rocketman” is no “Bohemian Rhapsody” — it’s better. Wilder, louder and with a clear creative vision, this dizzy, delirious jukebox musical has the energy and visual dynamism to truly reflect the outlandish aesthetic and performance style of its subject.
Dexter Fletcher, who took over for Bryan Singer as director on the last few weeks of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” gets to truly show what he’s got in “Rocketman.” And he doesn’t hold back. From the opening scene, in which the Welsh actor Taron Egerton, playing John, marches into a group therapy session in full sequined, platformed, feathered regalia, it’s obvious the film embraces roundabout and creative storytelling.
The therapy session serves as a framing device for John’s life story that we revisit throughout the film. Slowly he sheds pieces of his costume, which has become the colorful, clownish armor he’s built up around himself after a lifetime of searching for love and never receiving it. From his remote war veteran father (Steven Mackintosh) to his seemingly uncaring mother (Bryce Dallas Howard in full campy cockney mode) and an emotionally abusive relationship with his lover/manager John Reid (Richard Madden), Elton gives love to those who won’t return it. So he drowns his sorrows in booze, cocaine and shopping, pounding out his naked emotions on the piano. The only loving relationship in his life is with his best friend and songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Their soulful creative connection is palpable, giving their greatest songs new shades of meaning.
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“Rocketman” is no staid biopic — it’s a full-blown rock musical, a parade through Elton John’s greatest hits, and his best outfits. Fletcher and the writer Lee Hall use John’s songs as exposition, moving the story along with expertly choreographed and colorful musical numbers. The film frequently explodes into song-and-dance fantasy, expressing the emotional twists, turns and turmoil of each moment in John’s remarkable life. The film is a visual and musical feast as it swoops and spins through this roller-coaster ride.
The anchor and engine of “Rocketman” is a powerhouse performance by Egerton as John, quite possibly the role he was born to play, and the only actor who could pull off the acting and vocal ability required by the role. Egerton sings all the songs himself in the film, no easy task, and one he tackles energetically. The live-performance sequences are enhanced often by fantasy to capture the essence of the moment, especially during his first show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles.
Fletcher’s extravagant aesthetic and Egerton’s intense performance synergistically captures the spirit of John’s music and style. But fundamentally the film is about John’s journey to finding love — self-love. The fantastical style allows for John to confront his past demons and embrace his inner child, finally finding fulfillment from within.
The film shapes John’s complex life into this easily digestible narrative, but because it’s working within the musical genre, where emotions are big and character arcs are clear, it makes sense. It’s not too often that groundbreaking stars like Elton John come along, and “Rocketman” gives the star a biopic that is as wild and unique as himself.
Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content.