The first time we tend to see Elton John in Rocketman, he’s sporting a spangled secobarbital sodium costume with sharp horns and massive wings. It’s one among the numerous superb, glittering things we tend to see him wear within the moving-picture show, though on this occasion, he isn’t dressed for a concert. It’s around 1990, and Elton, contend by Taron Egerton, is attending a gaggle medical aid session. He is also one among the world’s most productive rock stars, however, he’s additionally being consumed alive by sex addiction and misuse, and additionally by feelings of abandonment that return to his childhood.
No one who’s seen a moving-picture show a few fashionable musicians are stunned by any of this or by the manner Rocket man unfolds its story as a series of extended flashbacks. However, even inside that acquainted framework, the moving-picture show finds shocking ways to buck convention. the colors are bright and changeful, however, the tone is fantastically modulated: The classical music excesses are balanced by a strong sense of melancholy. The group psychotherapy framing device works particularly well: The sight of Elton all told that insubordinate feather is ludicrous, marvelous and surprisingly poignant — all words you may apply to the moving-picture show itself.
As directed by Dexter Fletcher from a script by Lee Hall, Rocketman isn’t just a musician’s biopic; it’s a biographical musical. Conceived as a surreal song-and-dance spectacular, it’s a delirious blur of truth and artifice, convention and daring. John’s greatest hits — from “Your Song” and “Tiny Dancer” to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “I’m Still Standing” — are treated not just as career milestones but as full-blown numbers. The first one is “The Bitch Is Back,” repurposed here as an anthem of boyhood defiance for Elton, born Reginald Dwight, as he grows up in 1950s London with his unhappily married parents. Bryce Dallas Howard plays his mother with a series of exhausted eye-rolls, even when Reggie begins to show signs of prodigious musical talent.
Reggie grows up in a flash, rebrands himself as Elton John and meets his lifelong collaborator, the lyricist Bernie Taupin, wonderfully played by Jamie Bell. The movie’s most stirring scene finds Elton improvising at the piano, and the immortal melody to “Your Song” comes pouring out of his fingertips. It’s his song of unrequited love for Bernie, who will stand by him through thick and thin, even after Elton falls into a toxic relationship with a manipulative manager, John Reid, played by Richard Madden of Game of Thrones fame.
It may be a little reductive to use John’s music as a form of narrative shorthand, but it also works like gangbusters: We’re reminded of just how soulful and emotionally malleable that music is. In one of the more blatant but inspired artistic liberties, Elton makes his stateside debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles with a gravity-defying performance of “Crocodile Rock” — never mind that it’s 1970, two years before he and Taupin would write that song in real life.
Egerton does his own singing as John, and though he’s not a perfect physical match for the character, it hardly matters. Rather than going for showy mimicry, the 29-year-old actor underplays, locating subtle depths of feeling in a figure known for his flamboyance. He retains a firm grip on the character even when John begins his downward spiral, climaxing with his 1975 suicide attempt when he overdoses on Valium and plunges into his swimming pool. It’s here that director Fletcher unleashes the song “Rocket Man” itself, staged as a gorgeously lyrical underwater fantasy.
Moments like that give the movie coherence and fluidity that eluded the much more slapdash Bohemian Rhapsody, which Fletcher completed after its director, Bryan Singer, was fired mid-production. It’s hard not to compare the two: Like Rhapsody, Rocketman is a portrait of an LGBT glam-rock icon who repressed his sexuality but ultimately couldn’t keep it out of the spotlight. This movie, to its credit, takes a much more intimate and empathetic view of it’s subject’s romantic life.
That’s not to say that Rocketman doesn’t have its overly processed, sanitized moments. You may nod your head somewhat dutifully as the story tumbles through its rise-and-fall-and-rise-again trajectory. But as John’s music itself reminds us, even the most familiar tune can take on new resonance. In the movie’s most aching moments, Elton seems to be singing not to others but to him, as if to suggest that even the most universal pleasures often have intensely personal roots. Before it was your song, it was his.