A good Elton John song gussies up solid, old-fashioned songcraft with showbiz dazzle. So it makes sense that the wildly entertaining “Rocketman,” a big-screen jukebox musical based on John’s life, would follow the same formula.
At heart, it’s a very traditional rags-to-riches musical biopic, charting John’s rise to pop music stardom in the 1970s as well as his personal struggles offstage. But it’s presented with real boldness and flair, and even a touch of sheer madness, that feels quintessentially Elton.
Director Dexter Fletcher previously brought the troubled production of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in for a successful landing after the original director, Bryan Singer, was fired. That film was much tamer by comparison because of its odd squeamishness about Freddy Mercury’s sexuality and because all the songs in the film were confined to the stage and the recording studio.
“Rocketman” is unbound by such conventions, diving deep into surreal images to illustrate a life of creative brilliance, personal excess and private insecurities. When John (Taron Egerton) plays "Crocodile Rock" in a Los Angeles club, the song literally levitates the singer and the audience off the ground. You can probably guess what happens to him at the climax of "Rocketman."
The film is framed by scenes set in 1990 of Elton John telling his life story while in rehab. I'm pretty sure in real life he didn't attend group therapy wearing a giant devil costume, complete with giant feathered wings and sequin-encrusted horns, but it seems fitting that he does in the movie.
In flashbacks, we see Elton as a young boy named Reginald Dwight, leading his neighbors in his humdrum London suburb into the streets for a showstopping version of “The Bitch is Back." It’s delightfully ridiculous, but it’s also a window into his heart, and his frustration at being bottled up in a conformist environment, ignored by his indifferent parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh).
“You have to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.” This advice, spoken by an American soul singer to a teenage Elton, is key to the film, as Elton embarks on a musical career, and a life, determined to leave shy little Reginald behind. But it’s not so easy.
His friendship and partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) sends him on his way. A scene where they stumble around on the keyboard before finding the right melody for “Your Song,” their eyes widening as they realize what they’ve discovered together, is quite moving. John’s rise to fame seems almost dreamlike, hopping — in a heartbeat — from bars in London to clubs in Los Angeles to filling arenas and stadiums.
But we also get a sense of the loneliness John feels when he’s offstage, particularly as a closeted gay man. “Tiny Dancer” is reworked as a rather wistful tune, sung by John as he wanders alone through a debauched Hollywood party, keeping his sexuality on lockdown. This may be the secret strength of “Rocketman” — the ability to turn up the energy of John songs, like in a raucous dancing-in-the-streets version of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting," or dialing it back as the emotion of the scene requires.
As he becomes a megastar, the gap between John’s public persona and private pain only grows wider. When John finally allows himself to fall in love with another man, it’s with an oily manager (Richard Madden) who ends up manipulating and isolating him. The costumes grow more and more outrageous, almost as if John is trying to disappear inside them.
There’s a moment at Shea Stadium where John crosses the threshold from offstage to onstage, transforming from miserable loner to grinning showman in the blink of an eye. Egerton may have been unwittingly auditioning for the part when he sang “I’m Still Standing” in the animated movie “Sing,” and he utterly inhabits both the public and private Elton John.
“Rocketman” spends longer dwelling in John’s creative and personal funk that I expected. There are no easy ways out, until John goes to rehab and does the hard work of reckoning both with the toxic people around him and his own toxic nature. For me, the film then rushes a little too quickly to a happy ending, summing up the last 30 years of John’s relatively content life (marriage, fatherhood, “The Lion King”) in a few photos and captions.
While most biopics play it safe in order to present its subjects in the best light, "Rocketman" is anything but subtle about the highs and lows of Elton John's life. As high as it lets him soar, it never forgets to bring him back down to earth.