Review: 'Rocketman' is an affecting, sprawling musical about the life of Elton John

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

CANNES, France -- There are a few surprises tucked in amid the sweet sounds and bright, kaleidoscopic visuals of "Rocketman," though the way it ends is not one of them. It plays out its final moments, as all biopics these days apparently must, over a montage of photos of its real-life subject. Still, because that subject is Elton John, this conventional postscript has its bonus pleasures, and not just because the images we see are unusually colorful and extravagant to behold.

The sight of John at some of his most memorable concert performances, many of which are re-created in the movie, will probably only burnish your admiration for Taron Egerton, the game and gifted 29-year-old actor who plays him. You are also likely to come away satisfied that the English director Dexter Fletcher and his collaborators (including costume designer Julian Day and production designer Marcus Rowland) have re-created those moments with meticulous accuracy and minimal exaggeration, down to every last sequin and pair of specs.

Of course, for the millions of fans who have made Elton Hercules John one of the most popular entertainers of all time, the side-by-side visual comparisons may well be unnecessary. They may have eternally fresh memories of the rainbow-hued feathers John wore on "The Muppet Show," the sparkly baseball uniform from his sold-out shows at Dodger Stadium or his star-making, gravity-defying L.A. debut with "Crocodile Rock" at the Troubadour.

But the movie gives you those moments anyway, and a lot more besides. The commercial imperative of fan service, a term often discussed in the context of mega-franchises like "Star Wars," also applies to movies about bestselling musical artists. You might call "Rocketman" conventional, and you wouldn't be entirely wrong. (The fact that the title is one word may be its most surprising element.) But as with its beloved subject and his enormous catalog of multiplatinum earworms, the movie's familiarity turns out to be crucial to its charm.

Mild-mannered English piano player Reginald Dwight transforms into rock superstar Elton John in this musical fantasy biopic starring Taron Egerton

Now might be a good time to dispense with the sensitive subject of "Bohemian Rhapsody," and not just because that hugely successful, Oscar-winning Freddie Mercury biopic also centers on a hugely popular musician whose long-repressed homosexuality found both expression and cover in an outsize, often outrageous sense of style. There's also the fact that an uncredited Fletcher wound up completing "Rhapsody" last year, after the director Bryan Singer was fired mid-production.


The difference between that movie and this one is basically the difference between a tissue of cliches and a straightforward drama. But it is also the difference between a musician's biopic and a biographical musical. One of the more intuitive gambits of the screenplay by Lee Hall ("Billy Elliot," a resonant touchstone here) is to structure the picture as a full-blown song-and-dance spectacular, in which fantasy and reality often blur together -- sometimes with seamless fluidity, and sometimes with quasi-Brechtian distance.

Egerton's John interacts at key intervals with his younger self, born Reginald Dwight (played at different ages by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor). The inevitable performances of "Your Song," "Tiny Dancer," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "I'm Still Standing," "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" and, of course, "Rocket Man" are treated not just as career milestones but also as thoughtfully staged, psychologically revealing musical numbers.

There's a lot of psychology to reveal. John's story, with all its chart-climbing highs and bottle-hitting lows, has been told before, in salacious tabloid chunks and unauthorized biographies. (His official autobiography will be published this year.) But those who know him as an unparalleled success and a trailblazing LGBTQ icon, or who associate him primarily with the joyousness of so much of his music, may be caught off-guard by some of the more harrowing moments in this particular telling.

We are thrown into a series of extended flashbacks seen from the painful vantage of John's 1990 stint in rehab -- a blunt but effective framing device that forces him to grapple with the past through a mid-recovery haze of depression and anger. Most of that pain is rooted in his boyhood, spent growing up in 1950s London with his unhappily, temporarily married parents. Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) is distant and stern, quick to stamp out any trace of softness in his son's temperament. Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) takes more of an interest in the boy's prodigious musical abilities, though she too is always finding new opportunities for distraction and disappointment.


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