Rocketman begins with a literal bang, as Elton John (Taron Egerton) slams open the doors into a rehab meeting in a bedazzled, fiery orange devil suit. From that moment on, viewers are taken on a drug-fueled, surrealist journey by director Dexter Fletcher. Unlike its lukewarm predecessor Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), I thoroughly enjoyed watching Egerton and his excellent cast-mates Jaime Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Richard Madden re-tell the story of Elton John’s formative years in Rocketman.
The film follows John from his early childhood all the way through his triumphant return and the start of his sobriety. In the couple decades the film spans, we see John ride the highs (the scene where Egerton sings “Your Song” has been a standout for critics) and sink through the lows (not much that beats a suicide attempt). There’s plenty of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll to go around, but Rocketman also takes a few breaks, observing John in his quieter, more reflective moments. The result is a portrait full of heart and heartbreak, destructiveness and restoration.
Fletcher and writer Lee Hall avoid the overplayed, formulaic approach that seems oh so common with biopics these days. They don’t get bogged down in trying to exude realism–we all know that “true stories” are highly edited to fit an established narrative anyway–but rather opt to explore John’s life story in a manner that’s consistent with his larger than life stage presence and personality. Though the real life John served as an executive producer, Rocketman doesn’t shy away from his faults–it elevates them for a younger generation who may not have been aware of his tumultuous career beginnings. More than that, Fletcher takes viewers on a whirlwind ride, shifting back and forth between past and present, young and old, with ease.
When I first heard Egerton was cast to play John, I wasn’t quite sure if he’d fully step up to the challenge (especially given his 2019 Met Gala outfit, which seemed like a missed opportunity to pay homage to his character). I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong: Egerton’s performance stunned me. John was adamant that his cinematic counterpart be able to sing the songs on his own, and Egerton didn’t shy away from the task. His deep admiration for the musician is clear in interviews and shines throughout Rocketman. He plays the part with panache and, more importantly, compassion. I’m definitely keeping my fingers crossed for him throughout this year’s award season–in my humble opinion, he deserves an Oscar far more than Rami Malek. The rest of the cast also gave stellar performances. Shout out to Howard for her biting turn as John’s mother and Bell for his tender portrayal of John’s songwriter and best friend Bernie Taupin.
That doesn’t mean that Rocketman was without issues. At times, its framing device felt clunky and I wondered if I would’ve preferred a directly chronological approach instead. While its whirlwind pace did a great job reflecting John’s addiction to cocaine and alcohol, breezing through the years and blurring performances and life together, the film might’ve benefitted from a tiny bit more stability. More importantly, Rocketman certainly lacked both gender and racial diversity in its main cast. While this criticism may seem harsh for a biopic about a white man and his mostly white/male friends, family, and colleagues, it’s always worth mentioning that projects benefit from having diversity in front of and behind the camera. Rocketman does feature a few black actors with tiny speaking roles which is more than some films (ahem Dunkirk) can say, but until we live in an age where all genders and races are well represented in mainstream media, I’m not going to give any projects a free pass (even those that are “based on a true story”).
At the risk of including too much comparison in this review, I have to say that I abhorred Bohemian Rhapsody for its unimaginative, lukewarm approach to Freddie Mercury’s life and legacy. I was fully prepared to feel the same way about Rocketman, but instead, I came away from the theater feeling rejuvenated by Fletcher’s energetic and original approach to the biopic genre. While Rocketman is not a film that will please everyone, particularly those who aren’t comfortable with touches of surrealism, in my eyes it will stand as an imaginative testament to a star ready to show the world his demons and come out on the other side. Of course, it never hurts to hire an excellent costume designer on the way.