Movies

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

“Rocketman” tells the early life story of one of the most successful and beloved rock stars in history, using Elton John’s music to illustrate and amplify key moments from his extraordinary and tumultuous life.
Film Critic

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 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.

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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 but well-told story. 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.

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One of Elton John's most legendary shows, at L.A.'s Troubadour, is re-created in "Rocketman."
(David Appleby / Paramount Pictures)

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.

The exception is Reggie’s loving grandmother (Gemma Jones), always the first one whose ears prick up when Reggie begins improvising at the piano — or, years later, when he stumbles on the immortal tune for “Your Song,” in one of the movie’s unmistakable highlights. By that point, after a decade-collapsing tracking shot set to the pulsing beat of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” Reggie (now played by Egerton) has already studied at the Royal Academy of Music and backed up soul singers with his early band, Bluesology.

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Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell and Sharmina Harrower in the movie "Rocketman."
(Gavin Bond / Paramount Pictures)

He has also begun his inseparable friendship and professional collaboration with the brilliant lyricist Bernie Taupin (a terrific Jamie Bell), together forming a two-man hit machine that earns them a three-album deal. It’s during their first U.S. tour that Reggie, now going by Elton John (a name he arrives at by way of one of the movie’s clunkier moments), meets and falls in love with a music manager named John Reid (Richard Madden, in a stark departure from “Game of Thrones”).

Reid provides him with some much-needed sexual release as well as a bitter education in the monstrous, endlessly exploitative nature of celebrity. Their sex scenes are brief and isolated, though the mere fact that they exist at all — and without the punitive air that marred “Bohemian Rhapsody” (last time I mention it, I promise) — will probably earn the movie more praise for candor than it deserves. “Rocketman” may push the envelope by the undemanding standards of the Hollywood mainstream, but its depiction of rock ’n’ roll debauchery still falls within a range of perfunctory, somewhat sanitized gestures.

And so you will nod dutifully as John launches into his downward spiral into booze and blow, fame and misfortune. You will wince in disapproval as he squanders emotion on those who don’t deserve it and pushes away those who do — like Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe), the music publisher who first discovered him and Taupin. You will make peace with the fact that his musical genius, his ability to draw on a vast array of musical traditions and genres and pull infernally catchy compositions out of thin air, lies beyond this movie’s ability to evoke.

What you may not always anticipate is the wit and imagination of the staging, the way the script repurposes some of those John-Taupin hits to underscore crucial dramatic moments. “Honky Cat” is reborn as an anthem of celebrity greed, “Bennie and the Jets” as a song of hedonist excess. The conceit of performing “Rocket Man” at the bottom of John’s swimming pool achieves a gorgeous lyricism that Fletcher pulls back from too soon. Given the endlessness of the offerings, it’s understandable that the movie has to make do with excerpts, but you always want more of the music rather than less.

That is hardly the worst thing one could leave this movie thinking. Much of that has to do with Egerton, who is far from a perfect physical match for his subject, but who wisely makes up for the difference through understated evocation rather than showy mimicry. He doesn’t disappear into the role, exactly, but he accomplishes something nearly as remarkable, which is to locate subtle depths of feeling in a character we first see wearing a devil-horned chicken costume. In his most aching moments, this Elton John seems to be singing not to others but to himself, reminding us that even the most universal pleasures can have intensely personal roots. Before it was your song, it was his.

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‘Rocketman’

Rating: R, for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content

Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute

Playing: Opens May 31 in general release

justin.chang@latimes.com | Twitter: @JustinCChang