Film Review: ‘Rocketman’ Soars to Great Heights

Since the beginning of cinema, there have been biopics. The idea of committing to film the lives of real people is a worthwhile endeavor, although the long established formula for such projects has left many essential and fascinating stories languishing in mediocrity. But then there is “Rocketman,” the life story of Sir Elton John, played in an Oscar worthy performance by Taron Egerton.

Dexter Fletcher directs this dreamy, surreal musical experience that journeys through Elton John’s early life and career. From his days as a young boy in a London suburb to rehab in the early 80s, “Rocketman” explores themes of connection, fame, and love. It is a beautifully rendered examination of a life.

Fletcher examines that life in the only suitable way to tell a story about Elton John: through music and spectacle. And audacious costumes, of course. The opening moment focuses on Elton, decked in wings and horns and rose-colored glasses, bursting through the doors and striding with purpose down a long hallway. He walks into a group therapy session at a drug rehab facility and sits down to tell his story. Many films about real people have opened with a sort of quasi-present day before flashing back to the beginning. But Fletcher stages this introduction through a musical cue that leads directly into a perfect song and dance moment in which we meet a young Reggie Dwight and his overbearing mother (played by Bryce Dallas Howard).

From that exceptionally choreographed opening, “Rocketman” moves through moments in Elton’s life. It never dwells long on any particular moment, and it doesn’t need to. Through carefully selected numbers, we see his acceptance to the Royal Academy of Music, his almost fated meeting with lifelong collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and his first ever show at the world famous Troubadour. He meets John Reid (Richard Madden), with whom he would share a professional and personal relationship. As his headdresses get bigger and his album sales go through the roof, we see it all without judgment. Rarely has watching a biopic felt like sitting inside a memoir, but that is the type of cinematic magic Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall have accomplished.

Taron Egerton may not have been the obvious choice to play the pop star, but through movies like “The Kingsmen,” he has proven he has a particular charm and charisma that make him ideal. And factoring in his singing and dancing skills, his performance becomes something truly special. Belting out such well known tunes as “Crocodile Rock” and “Saturday Night’s Alright,” Egerton gives one of the best performances in recent memory. His Elton John isn’t simply a musical genius who loves cocaine and shopping. He is emotional, lonely, lost. He struggles to find his place in a world that doesn’t understand him—or perhaps they do, and too well. Even with big, boisterous roles, we have never seen Taron Egerton like this before. Though this type of part comes once in a lifetime, it feels like we’re witnessing the tipping point in his career.

Equally impressive is Jamie Bell as Elton’s writing partner, Bernie Taupin. Bernie is the rock in Elton’s life and their bond is portrayed with care and grace by Bell and Egerton. Bernie is the one person who can tell Elton what he needs to hear in the way he needs to hear it. Bell’s role is far less ostentatious, and he shows a songwriter with exceptional humility. Bell can accomplish so much with a simple look in his eye or a wave of the hand. He deserves a place in the Oscar conversation as much as Egerton does. Together, they share the type of loving male friendship we don’t see enough of on screen.

One particularly intriguing piece of the cast is Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mother, Sheila. In his real life, Elton John had an infamous falling out with his mother, Sheila Farebrother, who passed away in 2017. The stories of their feuds are legendary and she was known for being an exceptionally critical person. Howard’s performance feels almost like a caricature, and she spouts the kind of vile, cruel things that no reasonable person would ever say to their child. It’s the kind of performance that would be entertaining if it didn’t represent someone’s actual life and experiences. Instead, it drives home the level of unease Elton must have felt for many years, and Howard doesn’t hold back. To call it a caricature, though, isn’t meant as a negative. In fact, her portrayal comes across as the mother from Elton’s memory, exaggerated by his unhappiness rather than by an unfaithful representation.

Taron Egerton in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

In addition to brilliant performances from a supporting cast that includes Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, and Matthew Illesley, the overall production of “Rocketman” is rich and vibrant. Julian Day recreated some of the singer’s most infamous costumes, from his sparkling Dodgers uniform to Queen Elizabeth I. Instead of falling to exact replicas, Day takes great care to recreate some of those wild and iconic looks with a timeless flourish. One of the great strengths of “Rocketman” is that, despite being set in a very specific era, it does have an air of timelessness to it. Nothing feels dated. Credit also belongs to production designer Marcus Rowland, who crafts a world that is both confining and wondrously open.

“Rocketman” is a raw and emotional journey that is also an entertaining ride through calamity, turmoil, and adventure. It balances the good with the bad and deftly points out that yes, stardom comes with a price, but that price doesn’t have to be everything. Dexter Fletcher has reinvigorated the musical biopic and Elton John should be proud of what Fletcher and Egerton have accomplished.

“Rocketman” is distributed by Paramount and is available on Blu-Ray and digital.

GRADE: (★★★★)

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