Rocketman is an epic musical biopic/fantasy written by Lee Hall and directed by Dexter Fletcher, the man who took over directing duties after Bryan Singer was fired from that other hit musical biopic that came out last year that somehow everyone loved even though it was superbly average and (in an even stranger turn of events) actually won the Oscar for Best Film Editing (seriously, how did that happen?) It stars Kingsman lead Taron Egerton as the legendary Elton John, a rock and roll musician who took the world by storm with a natural ear for musical notation and his long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin, here played by Snowpiercer and Fant4stic actor Jamie Bell. The film chronicles the story of Elton John’s most significant moments as he recounts them during a rehab meeting which he is attending in order to deal with his addictions. Throughout the movie, we follow the rise and fall of the popular rock star, as well as get to know a little bit more about the world around him, how he grew up, and how he inspired an entire generation of fans with his style, confidence, and music. Rocketman also stars Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, and Tate Donovan.
This movie is inevitably going to be compared somewhat to Bohemian Rhapsody due to their somewhat similar aesthetic stylings, likely brought on by having the same director make this movie and be put in charge of that other one almost 75% of the way through production. It’s not that the comparisons aren’t warranted in that respect, but to be honest, that should be almost exactly where they stop because Rocketman is not Bohemian Rhapsody – it’s an almost infinitely better film, both for the Rhapsody mistakes it doesn’t make and the Rocketman flavor it purposely throws in. This film should be looked at as the gold standard for how to do a musical biopic about a legendary figure in rock history, and the fact that not only did they pull it off, I had fun watching them do it is a great testament to just how well they actually did.
One of the wisest moves Rocketman makes right off the bat seems like a no-brainer at first until one realizes that Bohemian Rhapsody made the mistake of not doing it: it strips Elton John of everything and gets to the core of who he is as a person before it even thinks about giving him the chance to be a legend. Rhapsody started off by lionizing its icon before he even got out of his front door, rather than getting to the core of who Freddie Mercury was as a human being, something Rocketman not only begins with but forces the audience to see before they give us what we came for. More than hearing his music or seeing his story, we need to understand who Elton John is in order to understand why any of this matters, and the way they get to that core is marvelous. Yes, he was absolutely a musical genius from a young age, but he was also a very troubled young man. We see in early sequences how rocky his relationship with his parents was, how his father and mother (particularly the former) didn’t seem to care for him properly, and how hiding who he truly was as a young person hurt his development as he grew.
An ingenious way that Rocketman manages to show the audience Elton’s internal struggle is through the music he’s so famous for. When I mentioned at the beginning of this review that this was a musical biopic, I mean that it’s a musical biopic. Characters will often break out into full-on musical numbers using Elton John’s music, complete with dance choreography and story progression right there in the mix, and this works not only because it gives us more of a clue as to what’s happening in Egerton’s mind and what his character is going through, but also because Elton John’s music was so often very personal to him. It wasn’t just a matter of writing hit song after hit song…somehow, and people happening to like the sound of it, like Rhapsody’s story for Freddie Mercury, it was from the heart; Elton John’s music was often about struggles he went through, internal struggles he put into abstract form, and the musical sequences hit on that point extremely well, showing us Egerton’s internal monologue in an immensely creative fashion. Plus, it’s also a lot of fun. Fletcher makes Rocketman not only carry the story, but embody the spirit of Elton John, and so the ride along the journey is just as flamboyant, bombastic, and wild as Elton John himself.
The performances in the film are all uniformly great, with particular standouts going to Richard Madden and Jamie Bell as Egerton’s second manager/temporary lover and his lyricist, respectively. Madden’s always been a great actor and it’s nice to see that he’s getting some legitimate work outside of his Game of Thrones fame now he’s got a bit of fair distance from the show, but we really shouldn’t take for granted how good he is here; in an awards season world, he might have a mid-range shot at landing an award nomination somewhere. What’s a bit more striking though is how easily Jamie Bell washes off the stink of having had to play the Thing in 2015’s god-awful Fant4stic by being so good in this movie. His turn as Elton’s long-time best friend and lyricist Bernie Taupin is one of the more surprising and nuanced performances in the film, and was something I honestly did not see coming given how well the marketing hid the fact that he was even in the movie at all. I’ll be interested to see how his exposure in this one helps his upcoming indie film Skin, if it does at all, since he looks completely different for both roles and that movie seems pretty small-release after all. If there were any justice in the world, he should be getting a lot more calls after Rocketman comes out.
But no one, not one single performer outshines Taron Egerton in this movie. Part of that is due to the sharp narrative focus the film has on Elton John as a person, but much of it is also just how well Egerton sells the part. If it weren’t so early in the summer movie season, I would say Egerton is a lock for a Best Actor nomination right now, because the more I think about his performance as Elton John in this film, I can’t seem to remember a single false note in it. He sounds like Elton as he plays and sings (and he’s actually doing the singing himself), he looks like him in every costume he wears, he moves like him, even when doing something as simple as walking or sitting down in a chair. It’s a remarkable feat of near-perfect replication without it feeling like an impression and I was in complete awe of the confidence Egerton displays just moving across a room or playing the piano on stage. Better than simply playing the legendary rock icon, Taron Egerton becomes Elton John in this movie, and if that first Kingsman wasn’t going to convince you this guy is the real deal (although, it really should have; that movie’s amazing), then his performance in Rocketman is ready to blast your brain into the stratosphere; he’s that good. Hopefully he’s “Oscar” good come nomination time next January, but we’ve got a long way to go until then and right now it’s pretty much just a game of hoping he doesn’t get buried amidst the slew of awards season contenders. Luckily, the Oscars season window seems to have been broken (or at least slightly cracked) lately by movies like Get Out and Black Panther receiving Best Picture nominations for their respective years (and Daniel Kaluuya from that first one did get a Best Actor nom), so all hope’s not lost on that front.
Really the only flaws I can think of with this film is that it runs a bit too long in a few spots. That’s not necessarily a bad problem to have, especially when considering just how good Rocketman is otherwise, but it does drag in a few bits here and there, namely towards the end of the second act and the middle of the third. It’s not a huge detriment but it will be noticeable once you start getting to the point where you might have to get up to go pee and the movie still has a good bit of wrap-up to go, so plan accordingly. As well, not knowing that Bryce Dallas Howard plays Elton’s mother was a bit distracting once she showed up on screen in a dark wig and a British accent and I immediately thought “oh, hey, that’s Bryce Dallas Howard.” A similar thing happened with Jamie Bell at first, but while it faded for him, it didn’t for her. She’s good in the movie (and this “flaw” is honestly more the fault of marketing than anything else), but you’ll probably want to know that she’s in there first.
Other than that, Rocketman is as close to a perfect version of exactly what it’s trying to be as you could probably get with a personal story so bombastic yet transcendent yet personal. Dexter Fletcher has crafted what will surely become known as the definitive way to do not only an Elton John movie, but any musical biopic from this point forward. It’s fresh, it’s exciting, it’s a wonderful, rocking good time, and this will be the Taron Egerton performance that people point to as the origin of when he became a household name. What a wonderful, wonderful surprise. Rocketman opens in theaters nationwide on May 21st.
I’m giving “Rocketman” a 9.1/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.