The Elton John biopic, Rocketman, opened this weekend, and it is an amazing film. From 1970 through 1976, his music was inescapable on radio: AM top 40 radio was saturated with Elton songs, and FM progressive rock stations played his deeper album cuts. For several years, Elton John was the biggest musical star on the planet.
So it makes sense, given the success of the recent Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, to give Sir John the same treatment. However, Rocketman is a far more successful film. It begins with Elton stomping down the hallway of a rehab center in an outrageous devil costume with horns and wings. He bursts into a group therapy session, confesses his many sins, and begins talking about his life. As he opens up more and more about his childhood and early career, he gradually removes various parts of his costume, until he eventually looks like everyone else in the group.
What makes Rocketman such a memorable experience is director Dexter Fletcher’s decision to make this a musical, and not a documentary. His willingness to play loose with the chronological sequence of John’s hits, and let them serve the overall narrative of his life may annoy some fans, but it works. Throughout the movie, there are surrealistic sequences of singing and dancing that are wonderfully entertaining.
For example, a very young Reg Dwight (Elton’s real name) is asked to play a song in the local pub. He begins playing piano tentatively, but at the urging of his family quickly rips into “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”. The walls of the pub recede, and an young Elton – several years older – is running through a carnival belting out the lyrics while followed by a troupe of choreographed dancers. It’s a thrilling moment that drives home his promise and talent.
Another highlight is the moment when he and lifelong collaborator Bernie Taupin first meet and agree to work together. As Elton tries out the first few chords of “Your Song” while peering at Bernie’s handwritten lyrics, the audience is swept up into the excitement of their discovery that they are going to be huge.
No rock biopic would be complete without the star’s obligatory descent into drugs and paranoia, and Rocketman pulls no punches. As he gets bigger and bigger, and more and more people depend on his touring to fuel their greed, he gradually succumbs to every temptation given him. And this is where Taron Egerton’s performance as Elton deserves praise: his vocals are extraordinary, and his portrayal of Elton’s slow descent into drug and alcohol-fueled madness is harrowing. He truly deserves an Oscar for his work.
Of course, Elton’s sexual preferences are no secret, and they are an integral part of the story from the beginning. There are some love scenes that, quite frankly, would never have made it to the screen a few years ago. That said, everything in the movie is there for a reason, and nothing is gratuitous. His brief marriage to Renate is covered sympathetically, and his brotherly bond with Bernie is a constant source of strength and stability throughout the turmoil of his career.
The final scenes where Elton confronts his demons, both chemical and familial, are uplifting and satisfying. If you grew up in the 1970s as I did, or you are simply a fan of Elton, Rocketman is a fitting tribute to one of the most talented composers and performers of our lifetime.