Elton John’s story is many things — the travails of repressed sexual identity and addiction, the corrosive effect of celebrity on talent, and the capacity for one of the greatest songwriters in history to overcome it all and become his one true self. But in “Rocketman,” it’s a dense jukebox musical variation on “A Christmas Carol,” with John traveling through the bumpier chapters of his life to comprehend how he got here.
Above all, it’s a snazzy, overproduced vessel for the songs, as Taron Egerton gives the karaoke performance of his life in a sufficient impersonation of a very familiar face. Rather than revealing much about the man behind the music, “Rocketman” seems more content to hover inside of it, exploring his unique synthesis of blues, rock, and every other relevant genre as a natural extension of his personality.
No surprise here: Director Dexter Fletcher layers on the molten cheese with this colorful assemblage of 20 John songs built around key moments in his life, presenting the template for a blockbuster Broadway musical in music-video form. There’s nothing shocking or bold about the way “Rocketman” consolidates the many chapters of John’s life into an elaborate combination of melodramatic conflict and exuberant numbers, but generations of fans would expect nothing less. “Rocketman” aims to please.
As the movie opens, Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall envision a drug-addled John in 1990 as his own variation on Ebenezer Scrooge, haunted by the ghost of Christmas past in the former of his childhood self. Bursting into an addiction support group buried in a red sequined jacket and angel wings, he’s reticent to share his intimate history until he sees a young boy across the room — Reggie, the puny adolescent from Middlesex who would later change his name to Elton. As the kid starts singing the lyrics to “The Bitch is Back,” John follows him into the past, and the dancers come in. It’s an outwardly silly proposition that establishes the movie’s M.O. as it careens through John’s life by using his music as autobiography.
“Rocketman” commences with a campy approach to commenting on each phase of John’s life. Is there a blunter instrument than John’s father (Steven Makintosh) berating his poor son for his creative interests while the child belts out “I want love, but it’s impossible”? Elsewhere, it assembles the cinematic equivalent of scanning the singer’s Wikipedia page: In the office of future lover and manager John Reid (a confident Richard Madden), John conceives of his fabricated last name after glancing at a photo of The Beatles, and the music swells. When Reid hands John a envelope containing lyrics by Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), the writer who would become John’s collaborator for decades, the soundtrack chimes in once more.
While “Rocketman” doesn’t skimp on illustrating accomplishments, it often overstates them. The movie’s finest scene finds Egerton nailing every note as he performs “Your Song” to giddy producers. It requires no fancy narrative trickery, aside from the capacity for the actor to deliver a credible impersonation, and it stands out in a sea of exuberance. The spectacle is fun and tiring in equal measures, but it has the effect of making more grounded moments look awfully tame, like watching bland dramaturgy shoehorned into a concert with the greatest hits.
Some snazzy musical renditions work better than others, but with 20 musical performances they often overwhelm narrative. Terrified to sing “Crocodile Rock” at the Troubadour in a crowd that includes members of the Beach Boys — the timeline’s off, as John wrote the song two years after the scene takes place, but “Rocketman” is a fantasy anyway — John eventually kills it, hurtling his body into the air as he hands stay on the keys, and the audience floats up with him. Later, he roams a party singing “Tiny Dancer” while gazing into the camera, tosses himself into a pool, and belts out the title song beneath the waves. Viewed as discrete sequences, they illustrate the music’s vibrant qualities — but don’t necessarily create a compelling whole.
Fortunately, “Rocketman” doesn’t fall into the same trap as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which reduced the singer’s homosexuality to a punchline. John’s character comes to terms with his same-sex attraction early on, at least offstage, through his alternately exciting and messy love affair with Reid. Their passionate sex scene isn’t graphic, but seeing as it’s set to “Take Me to the Pilot,” it’s not exactly restrained, either.
Of course, it doesn’t take much to surpass “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the biopic department, and if that’s the metric for measuring the success of “Rocketman,” then it soars into the stratosphere. Egerton occasionally veers into a goofy caricature just a few shades shy of Austin Powers, but mostly he’s a solid vessel for pairing John’s giddy energy with the melancholy hidden behind those tinted shades. Hall’s script doesn’t offer a lot of insights, though it allows Egerton to show the singer coming to terms with his flaws in ways that his popular image never suggest (and coming out in advance of John’s fall memoir, “Rocketman” gets to scoop the real deal). “I started acting like a cunt in 1975,” John says. “I just forgot to stop.”
But such candid observations are marginal compared to the overwhelming visual tapestries forged from John’s cultural achievements. The movie closes with the singer’s sunny beachside “I’m Still Standing” video, once again allowing the lyrics to tell the tale. Fletcher throws so much filmmaking trickery at the screen that he often buries the opportunity to assess the singer’s creativity outside of its historical baggage. But when “Rocketman” stays on the surface, it’s almost always salvaged by the music. It’s not the warts-and-all chronicle that marketing hype might suggest, but it provides enough space to let John’s art speak for itself.
“Rocketman” premiered out of competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Paramount releases it on May 29, 2019.