Rocketman is basically Bollywood on steroids. It’s an over-the-top spectacle brimming with dance and drama, sentiment and song. There is nothing timid about the storytelling. Which is exactly how it should be because this is the life of an extraordinary singer and showman – Elton John. Gaudy and glorious is his predominant note.
The first time we see Elton John, he is wearing a horned demon costume striding purposefully through doors. You think he’s walking into a performance – where else would that look fit? Actually he’s heading into group therapy, where he confesses that among other things, he is a cocaine addict, an alcoholic, a sex addict and he can’t stop shopping. The rehab is a framing device, which allows John to go back into his life, trace his journey and also diagnose the root of his problems, which is of course, an unhappy childhood. We meet his cold, unloving father and his selfish, unhappy mother. Music becomes an escape and a lottery to a better life. Or so he thinks. Fame is a Faustian bargain. You pay with your soul.
This is the predictable arc of the artist biopic. The discovery of blazing talent and rise to glory and riches inevitably leads to the fall from grace. We’ve seen it often – most recently in Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of another 70s music icon, Freddie Mercury. Director Dexter Fletcher was called in to finish that film after the original director Bryan Singer was fired. There, Fletcher was on emergency duty. Here, he gives full flight to his vision and along with writer Lee Hall, Fletcher creates an even more outsized spectacle. Major episodes in John’s life are translated into song set pieces. Reality and fantasy blend seamlessly as the shy Reginald Dwight transforms into the flamboyant Elton John.
Rocketman is anchored by a terrific performance by Taron Egerton who, unlike Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, also sings the songs. I don’t know Elton John’s music well enough to tell you how close he comes to the original but Taron locates the humanity in a character who is outlandish and sometimes ridiculous. Jamie Bell is also wonderful as Bernie Taupin, John’s longtime songwriter. Their relationship is the emotional core of the film. Richard Madden plays John Reid, Elton John’s agent and object of desire – Reid embodies the cruelty of showbiz. He’s suave and slimy and essential to John’s journey. Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s mother is less effective – she’s written and played as a one-note character.
When the emotions and energy dip – as they do in the second hour – you can distract yourself by taking in the production design by Peter Francis and Marcus Rowland and the fabulous costumes by Julian Day. The outfits are all based on actual costumes that John wore – down to the winged shoes. Take in the sequins and glitter and color – it’s nutty but there’s also something life-affirming about it. Elton John is still standing and there is great comfort in that.
If you like restraint in cinema, then this isn’t the film for you. I take comfort where I get it. I recommend that you give Rocketman a shot.