While the bones of Rocketman may read familiar, as the film plucks plenty from Hollywood’s long and conservative tradition of biography pictures, coursing among them is a lifeblood charged with an originality befitting Sir Elton John. Over the span of the movie, we see our hero suffer the genre’s usual brands of childhood trauma (à la Walk the Line), crash-and-burn episode ( à la Bohemian Rhapsody), and time-and-space-transcending epiphany (à la Ray). But at every such occasion, there’s something distinguishing Rocketman from such company: Elton leading neighborhood singalong in a Middlesex cul-de-sac, transforming into an actual rocket and blasting off into space, and showing up to rehab dressed like a magical lobster.
In its delight to bounce off the wall is where we find Rocketman’s charm, intellect, and warmth. Just about every major interval is marked by a musical number—apropos for the story of a musician, perhaps, but rarely do we see films like these so willingly eviscerate the realism inherent to biography in favor of the whimsy of the musical motion picture.
Such sequences allow Elton to careen about a meticulously choreographed Saturday night bar fight, cast a levitation charm upon a crowd of crocodile rockers, zoom through a montage of honky cat livin’, and—if I may mention this once more—turn into a literal rocket and actually fly away beyond the confines of Earth’s gravitational pull. Graciously unconcerned with taking itself too seriously, Rocketman treats us to one hell of a show.
But that’s not to say that the film is light in heart. Rocketman’s characters do veer broad—I’m thinking first of Bryce Dallas Howard evoking, in her comic moments, the measure of Fawlty Towers as Elton’s mom Sheila; likewise of Stephen Graham, who here translates a storied career of playing goofball gangsters into the form of record producer Dick James, and Tate Donovan, who plays L.A. club owner Doug Weston like a marvelous alien—but only better keep up with the film’s spectacle as a result. Meanwhile, that lot of them orbit around a performance as winning as Taron Egerton’s keeps every piece of the picture tethered close to its soul.
Egerton does go big when necessary, usually when enlisted with bringing Elton John’s stage persona to life onscreen. Nevertheless, he does most of his work on a minuscule scale, communicating the lifetime of pangs housed in Reginald Dwight with a scrunch of his nose and cheeks. Elton’s relationships, and how they rattle and raise him, are what Rocketman is most interested in.
We see incredible pain in Elton’s never-ending attempts to connect with his ambivalent father (Steven Mackintosh), and bursts of fire both enlivening and destructive (with dynamite-grade sexuality all along the way) in his romance with manager John Reid (Richard Madden). Perhaps most striking of all is Elton’s friendship with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), which serves foremost as a reminder that the “cure” for loneliness needn’t be as dramatic as an impassioned love story or the international celebrity, but good old-fashioned friendship.
That such a soft and simple message can be so effectively delivered by a movie that—once more for the cheap seats—features a man turning into a rocket and blasting the hell off to Mars is a small miracle, and a testament to the film’s capacity for handling both big and small—and all the more impressively, in such close quarters. In making this magic work, Rocketman proves that it really understands the man at the center of its story. Imagination, showmanship, and heart—these are Elton, and they’re present and accounted for in his movie.
3.5 out of 5