As Bohemian Rhapsody proved, musical biopic clichés are no obstacle to spectacular box office success, so Rocketman should get some credit for the way it works to overturn them right off the bat.
Dexter Fletcher’s look at the life of Elton John starts with what appears to be a familiar gimmick — a backlit rock star (Taron Egerton) at the height of his career and in full feather (in John’s case, actual feathers). He’s striking a dramatic pose, bursting confidently through a door and onto the stage.
Except it’s not a stage. It’s the doorway to a group-therapy session for substance abusers, where a chastened and near-dead John reconsiders events from his life (each peppered with a song and dance number with music from the artist’s catalog) that have led him to this desperate place: to being, in his words, addicted to everything there is to be addicted to.
Fletcher’s wildly energetic musical starts with little Reginald Dwight in tweed shorts, eager for the hug of a coldhearted and often absent father. He lives mostly with a mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) who doesn’t resent her son so much as she resents her station in life, and a grandmother (Gemma Jones) who spots his talents and nurtures it.
As a young teen, piano prodigy Dwight studies at the Royal Academy but the movie moves quickly to Egerton as young Dwight, playing local pubs, changing his name, working for two quid a week as a backup musician for touring American soul bands.
The movie is less interested in musical influences, though (just some cursory name checks), than its exploration of the way performing and writing help John make sense of his own life — being gay, being unloved by his parents.
Veteran musicians give him philosophy: “You have to kill the man you were born to be to become the man you want to be.”
His most consistent advocate in that regard is friend and lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). They meet through John’s agent, and collaborate on tunes that fail to impress, until the determined pair writes a song that’s so good — “Your Song” — no one can deny its merit.
This is the movie’s best scene, and exemplifies the way Fletcher strays from rigid chronology and biography to make a point about art. No, John didn’t immediately pick up Taupin’s notes and start laying down an immaculate melody, as the entranced members of the house converge on the irresistible sounds.
But it gets to something about the miraculous and ineffable meeting of words and music, and it shows that John and Taupin knew what they had, leading to a brotherhood that would stand when all else in John’s life was falling apart.
This process begins when John tours and conquers the U.S., and the U.S. conquers him. There are drugs, booze, and sex (the film is rated R) — John has lovers (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden), but his search for love is as unsatisfying as ever. This trajectory is illustrated with songs that often make an awkward fit for the narrative (the choreography is also often routine), but Fletcher makes good use of the title tune Rocket Man. It’s obvious but apt — he really was burning out his fuse up there alone.
There is a running joke in the movie about John and Taupin never arguing, but they do, particularly on the point of the singer’s self-destruction.
Taupin sees a man whose amazing gift for melody has been turned into the Golden Egg, an exhausted songwriter now trying to make payroll, meet commitments, and also the obligations of being an icon. Being “Elton John” is just his job, five days week.
It’s an old story, but true in its own way, and Fletcher and Egerton find ways to give these familiar ideas a humor and over-the-top energy appropriate to its subject.
Rocketman. Directed by Dexter Fletcher. With Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones. Distributed by Paramount.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 min.
Parents’ guide: R (sex, drugs)
Playing at: Area theaters