After the success of last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, it will be hard not to compare subsequent rock-and-roll biopics with that film. Rocketman, the new film about Elton John, has many striking similarities to the movie about Freddie Mercury, both in the stories and in the faults of the projects. While Rocketman strives to tell Elton John’s story without toning down its darker moments, its use of fantasy to portray the singer’s struggles produces mixed results.
Rocketman follows the life of Elton John (Taron Egerton) from the time in his childhood when he discovered his gift for music until he checked into rehab in 1990. The film opens with Elton bursting into a group therapy session in a feathered devil suit and telling the story of his life, flashing back to the beginning of his long-term relationship with co-writer Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and following him through struggles with his family (Bryce Dallas Howard, Gemma Jones, and Steven Mackintosh), his overwhelming success, and a fraught relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden).
At times, Rocketman looks like a dream sequence and at others, it comes off like a Broadway musical. As much as I enjoy musicals, I thought that the parts of the film in which it looked like a stage play were among the weakest elements of the film. In those moments, the hackneyed and hamfisted storytelling detracts from the excellent performances. The clearest examples of this dynamic come with the framing device of Elton John telling his story to a therapy group in rehab. In the beginning, he is asked about his childhood and the film shifts to a song and dance number in his childhood neighborhood that is easily the weakest musical moment.
In the end, Elton John literally hugs his inner-child in a use of popular psychology that had me cringing rather than crying. Other times, the musical elements are very moving, such as when his family sings “I Need Love” reflecting the dysfunction in their home.
The film is at its best when it focuses on the friendship between Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Their relationship anchors the film, even when Elton increasingly loses his way. In a story that lacks any other relationships to really root for, romantic or otherwise, the love the two men have for each other brings sweetness to the early parts and amps up the personal stakes when Elton starts to lash out at those around him. The chemistry between Jamie Bell and Taron Egerton helps make the relationship really look like a best friendship, and was my favorite part of the story.
Another highlight of the film is the ornate, colorful, and often over-the-top costumes. The costume designers do a spectacular job of recreating some of Elton John’s more memorable outfits. Similarly, the makeup department does a sufficient job aging the actors to play characters over a long span of time.
As Elton John, Taron Egerton gives a standout performance. He does not look uncannily like the singer, but he does capture his mannerisms with a subtlety that does not play as impersonation or parody. His singing is excellent and he does a wonderful job of hitting both the emotional moments and the more comedic beats. Whereas Richard Madden is cartoonishly evil as John Reid, Jamie Bell brings an earnestness to Bernie that makes him a fitting foil for Egerton at his most divaish.
Rocketman is a beautifully made film with strong performances and much too heavy a hand in its more emotional moments. Although I enjoyed the music and seeing the more outrageous costumes, the unevenness in the tone and the sappy ending left me wanting more. 3.5 of 5 stars.
Rocketman was written by Lee Hall and directed by Dexter Fletcher. It runs 2 hours 1 minute and is rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content.
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