Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is yet another biopic about the psycho-sensual highs and lows of being a rock star. The story of Elton John’s life suggests a narrative arc that is, at this point, awfully familiar: a musically gifted boy from working-class England is inspired by the sonic freedom evoked by American rock music; his dissatisfaction with his own life propels him to great success but also makes him susceptible to the temptations of the decadent pop-star lifestyle; his drug habit ruins his personal relationships and even threatens his career; he eventually confronts his demons and stages a comeback—with his new, healthy attitude mirrored by renewed professional success. Roll titles telling us where Elton is now.
To its credit, Rocketman is at least partially aware that we’re familiar with these types of Behind the Music-style biopics. It doesn’t abandon the template, but it does toss us a colorful, energetic musical sequence whenever the protagonist’s family life or struggles with stardom threaten to get too dark. Fantastical song-and-dance scenes, built around some of Elton’s most well-known songs and enhanced by CG effects, serve to express the characters’ submerged feelings (“I Want Love”), transition between Elton’s childhood and adulthood (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), link the performative decadence of mid-’70s glam rock to that of mid-’70s sex (“Bennie and the Jets,” somewhat oddly), and simply offer some visually pleasing spectacle (“Crocodile Rock”). Their main effect, though, is to give the film the quality of a karaoke stage musical: Even as Elton nearly overdoses on prescription meds, we’re not here to contemplate mortality, but to enjoy some fondly remembered pop songs. As a musical, Rocketman is just fun enough to (mostly) distract us from its superficiality.
In between the musical sequences, Elton (Taron Egerton), born Reginald Dwight, is portrayed as the unhappy genius inside the sequined chicken costume. Loved insufficiently by his selfish mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and not at all by his stiff-upper-lipped father (Steven Mackintosh), the young Reggie longs to be somewhere and someone else. It turns out that he’s almost preternaturally gifted at the piano, able to reproduce complex pieces upon hearing them once, and this gift turns out to be his ticket out of working-class London. Starting as a back-up musician for Motown artists on tour in Britain, Reggie soon breaks out on his own, inventing his new stage name by stealing the first name of one of his bandmates, and taking the last name from John Lennon—improvising the latter when he sees a photo of the Beatles hanging in the office of Dick James (Stephen Graham), head of his first record label, DJM.
Rocketman makes clear that Reggie’s adoption of a stage name is more than just marketing, as he’ll insist, later in the film, that his family also call him Elton. The invention of a new persona allows him to escape his humble origins and demeanor. As one of the Motown performers advises him in one of those programmatic lines that these sorts of films specialize in, “Kill the person you are in order to become the person you want to be.” The irony of John’s public image—the mild manner and small stature offset by flamboyant, glittering stage performances—is expanded into a Reggie/Elton dialectic in Rocketman, in which the adult Elton must eventually learn to reconcile himself with his inner child. It’s a reconciliation that will be presented in the most literal of images toward the end of the film.
At DJM, Elton is paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and the two form an instant bond. Together, they write many popular songs, some seemingly inspired by their friendship. There’s an ambiguous sexual tension between them, and the film implies that the duo’s “Your Song” may have been an outgrowth of this tension—or, at the very least, that the lonely Elton mistook it as such. Elton’s ultimately platonic friendship with Bernie is the emotional core of Rocketman, depicted as the most stable relationship of Elton’s life. (The film concludes in the ’80s, just before the singer would meet his eventual husband, David Furnish.)
Fletcher’s film is less squeamish about Elton’s love life—including sex—than a big-budget biopic about a gay star would have been years ago—or, rather, as recent as last year. Elton has an intense and predictably doomed romance with callous music manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but what drives him to booze and drugs is a loneliness and discomfort with himself that goes beyond his marginalized sexual identity. Which is to say, the Elton John of Rocketman doesn’t fit into to the stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive gay man.
There isn’t much to Bernie and Elton’s creative process as depicted in the film. Repeatedly, Bernie shows up with lyrics, and Elton comes up with the music on the spot, as if the tunes came to him from on high. At one point, his mother claims accusatorily that everything has always been too easy for Elton, and as a viewer, one is tempted to agree. Here, Elton’s music is less the outgrowth of hard work and more on the order of religious revelation: Witness, for example, the trippy musical number in which “Crocodile Rock” makes the audience at the famous Troubadour club in Los Angeles levitate. The visually engrossing title-song sequence plays, in overblown glam-rock fashion, with Christ-like images of death and ascension.
Egerton delivers a dynamic performance as the alternatingly sullen and exuberant star, one that fits in perfectly with the film’s embrace of Elton’s loud, diamond-encrusted aesthetic. But if the musical sequences feature spirited performances and colorful mise-en-scène that are pleasurably diverting, much of what surrounds them is bound to elicit groans, from the hackneyed way the film uses minor black characters as props to legitimize its aspiring white rock star, to the one-dimensionality of every character who isn’t Elton or Bernie, to the final delivery of a complacent moral. As a vision Elton has of his beloved grandmother (Gemma Jones) tells him during his stint in rehab, “You write songs millions of people love, and that’s what’s important.” Is it, though? This seems less like a reassurance for a character in the grips of addiction, and more like a reassurance to the audience that they matter.