‘Rocketman’: Elton John gets a biopic (and at least half of it is good)
Tolstoy’s Law of Pop Music Biopics states that all happy rock stars are unique while each unhappy rock star is miserable in exactly the same way. Which is to say that as long as “Rocketman” is charting the jet-propelled rise of Elton John in the early 1970s, it is an absolute gas. As soon as it plunges into the burnout years — addictions, betrayals, diva fits — it plays like every other rags-to-rock-to-riches saga you’ve ever seen. Especially “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
In many ways, the new film is an improvement over that 2018 hit and Oscar bell-ringer. Taron Egerton (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”) gives a witty yet poignant performance as the pop star born Reginald Dwight, and unlike Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury, he’s 110 percent there. Egerton also did his own singing, and his capturing of John’s vocal timbre is remarkable both as mimicry and performance.
Comparisons to “Bohemian Rhapsody” are unavoidable, and not just because of subject and time period. Dexter Fletcher, the director of “Rocketman,” was the man who stepped in to complete the earlier film when Bryan Singer was fired, and in a sense this is a chance to show what he can really do.
What Fletcher can really do is capture the stultifying repressions of 1950s England and the ecstasy of breaking free from them. “Rocketman” is a straight-up biography that keeps getting sidetracked into lavish musical-fantasy production numbers, as if Fletcher were alternately resisting and caving in to his inner Julie Taymor.
But this makes sense, because what’s inside the well-groomed Reg Dwight (Matthew Illesley plays the singer as a boy, and Kit Connor as a teenager) is a riotous gay Busby Berkeley movie. “Rocketman” gives us a child prodigy who discovers piano, then Elvis, then a band — and then changes his name, and sets out to become a songwriter, since that’s the only way a “fat kid from Pinner with glasses” will ever make it in showbiz. John’s a peacock on the inside and a nervous wreck on the outside until he figures out the former can serve as camouflage for the latter. And so the scaredy-cat becomes a honky cat.
A sleazy manager (Stephen Graham, a right spiv) pairs John with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), a lyricist with a thing for the American West, and eventually there’s that magic moment when “Your Song” just pours out in the Dwights’ living room as Bernie and Elton’s self-absorbed mum (an unrecognizable Bryce Dallas Howard) and adoring grandma (Gemma Jones) look on. It’s one of the few birth-of-a-hit scenes that actually clicks because the tune remains lovely and the film has fully convinced us of John’s gift.
In its opening hour, “Rocketman” alternates between the dismal chilliness of John’s youth, with a distant, angry father (Steven Mackintosh) warning the boy “don’t be soft,” and those gonzo musical numbers, choreographed and filmed with brio, their lyrics serving as subtext for everything the characters can’t say. The hits come at us out of chronology and in no particular order, as if Elton and Bernie had composed their entire oeuvre in the first few months and then doled it out over the next 40 years. But if that’s the excuse Fletcher needs to give us a delightful single-take set-piece to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” fine.
It’s only after John breaks big in America — the scenes at LA’s Troubadour are a hoot, with an exuberant Tate Donovan as club impresario Doug Weston — that the demons come out to play and the leeches (Richard Madden as a callous lover/manager) come out to exploit. Is it the subject’s fault that his poor-little-rock-star decline into drugs and decadence looks so much like all the others as to seem generic? John executive-produced “Rocketman,” so, unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody,” this is very much the story the star wants to tell. But because lead actor Egerton, director Fletcher, and writer Lee Hall aren’t able to make these scenes feel freshly observed — and Lord knows, Egerton tries — “Rocketman” ends up playing as an oddly canned ego trip.
The framing device of a group therapy session, with the singer in a glorious red Lucifer costume, complete with wings and horns, starts out with sass but by film’s end has gone soggy. (This is apparently the kind of group therapy where no one else gets to talk.) In the end, the message of “Rocketman” is that all little Reg Dwight needed was a hug, and while that might be true, it’s also insultingly trite. Worse, it’s unfair to the mystery of artistic creation and to the way hurt and buried rage can fuel the fires of talent. If Elton John had had more affection as a child, would we still have “Tiny Dancer” or “Bennie and the Jets”? Would he be OK with that? Would you? On such matters the film is as quiet as its subject’s outfits are deafening.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Written by Lee Hall. Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 121 minutes. R (language throughout, some drug content and sexual content).