The first time we see Elton John in Rocketman, he’s wearing a spangly red devil costume with sharp horns and enormous wings. It’s one of the many glorious, glittery things we see him wear in the movie, although on this occasion, he isn’t dressed for a concert. It’s around 1990, and Elton, played by Taron Egerton, is attending a group therapy session. He may be one of the world’s most successful rock stars, but he’s also being eaten alive by sex addiction and substance abuse, and also by feelings of abandonment that go back to his childhood.
No one who’s seen a movie about a popular musician will be surprised by any of this, or by the way Rocketman unfolds its story as a series of extended flashbacks. But even within that familiar framework, the movie finds surprising ways to buck convention. The colors are bright and kaleidoscopic, but the tone is beautifully modulated: The operatic excesses are balanced by a powerful sense of melancholy. The group therapy framing device works especially well: The sight of Elton in all that defiant plumage is ludicrous, marvelous and strangely poignant — all words you might apply to the movie itself.
As directed by Dexter Fletcher from a script by Lee Hall, Rocketman isn’t just a musician’s biopic; it’s a biographical musical. Conceived as a surreal song-and-dance spectacular, it’s a delirious blur of truth and artifice, convention and daring. John’s greatest hits — from “Your Song” and “Tiny Dancer” to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “I’m Still Standing” — are treated not just as career milestones but as full-blown numbers. The first one is “The Bitch Is Back,” repurposed here as an anthem of boyhood defiance for Elton, born Reginald Dwight, as he grows up in 1950s London with his unhappily married parents. Bryce Dallas Howard plays his mother with a series of exhausted eye-rolls, even when Reggie begins to show signs of prodigious musical talent.
Reggie grows up in a flash, rebrands himself as Elton John and meets his lifelong collaborator, the lyricist Bernie Taupin, wonderfully played by Jamie Bell. The movie’s most stirring scene finds Elton improvising at the piano, and the immortal melody to “Your Song” comes pouring out of his fingertips. It’s his song of unrequited love for Bernie, who will stand by him through thick and thin, even after Elton falls into a toxic relationship with a manipulative manager, John Reid, played by Richard Madden of Game of Thrones fame.
It may be a little reductive to use John’s music as a form of narrative shorthand, but it also works like gangbusters: We’re reminded of just how soulful and emotionally malleable that music is. In one of the more blatant but inspired artistic liberties, Elton makes his stateside debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles with a gravity-defying performance of “Crocodile Rock” — never mind that it’s 1970, two years before he and Taupin would write that song in real life.
Egerton does his own singing as John, and though he’s not a perfect physical match for the character, it hardly matters. Rather than going for showy mimicry, the 29-year-old actor underplays, locating subtle depths of feeling in a figure known for his flamboyance. He retains a firm grip on the character even when John begins his downward spiral, climaxing with his 1975 suicide attempt when he overdoses on Valium and plunges into his swimming pool. It’s here that director Fletcher unleashes the song “Rocket Man” itself, staged as a gorgeously lyrical underwater fantasy.
Moments like that give the movie a coherence and fluidity that eluded the much more slapdash Bohemian Rhapsody, which Fletcher completed after its director, Bryan Singer, was fired mid-production. It’s hard not to compare the two: Like Rhapsody, Rocketman is a portrait of an LGBT glam-rock icon who repressed his sexuality but ultimately couldn’t keep it out of the spotlight. This movie, to its credit, takes a much more intimate and empathetic view of its subject’s romantic life.
That’s not to say that Rocketman doesn’t have its overly processed, sanitized moments. You may nod your head somewhat dutifully as the story tumbles through its rise-and-fall-and-rise-again trajectory. But as John’s music itself reminds us, even the most familiar tune can take on new resonance. In the movie’s most aching moments, Elton seems to be singing not to others but to himself, as if to suggest that even the most universal pleasures often have intensely personal roots. Before it was your song, it was his.