From its opening moments, no one’s going to make the mistake that Dexter Fletcher’s “Rocketman” – 120 minutes of the life and times of Sir Elton John – isn’t about someone destined to be a star. A sparkling sheen worthy of the flamboyant rocker imbues the movie’s spirit before we even see him, enough to provide a jolt of familiarity even to those who can’t tell “Crocodile Rock” from “Your Song.”
But “Rocketman” isn’t just a flight of celebrity fancy—the opening seconds, however cathartic, is a bait-and-switch with an effectiveness in line with how much you really know about Elton’s life. And when the cinematic energy reaches stratospheric heights after a slightly turbulent bit of setup, the movie bares its ambidexterity at painting the portrait of Elton John not as a star, but as a comet—at once a a majestic force burning through records sales charts and sold-out stadiums and also an an enigma of self-destructive tendencies, hurtling through the vast space of celebrity at speeds none can be expected to smoothly navigate.
“Rocketman” is a celebration of a life, and its success is rooted in the realization that that means showing a life at its very worst as well as its very best. Fletcher takes the mission to heart, directing Lee Hall’s script with a resoluteness that’s sternly evident from the start—John, being played by fellow Brit Taron Egerton, strides – confidently and bedazzled – not to a stage…but to rehab.
He isn’t doing well. We’re going to see the alcohol and drugs and fractured relationships in time, but the vulnerability in Egerton’s quivering face tells us as much. The movie begins in career res at one of the lowest points of Elton’s life, but this setting – a meeting of addicts forming a circle in a room that may as well be Elton’s mind – also serves as an anchor to the story we watch unfold.
And the story is one as exuberant as it is ambitious. In a two-hour chronicle of a life that only recognizes the gas pedal and not the brake, speeding up more dangerously and dubiously, the first 25 minutes or so are an origin story—a patient revving up of Fletcher’s gears.
Elton is a child in mid-1900s England, becoming intimately familiar with the piano as Fletcher sows the sequins of an eventually-otherworldly personality, while giving a taste of how “Rocketman” will tread the line between traditional buoyant musical and coke-streaked drama.
It isn’t coincidence that as a fully-haired Egerton finally comes bounding on the scene – not yet famous, not yet even Elton John – to the rockabilly tunes of “Saturday Night’s Alright,” “Rocketman” takes off for one of the most unapologetically energetic, charismatic hours of cinema that 2019 has offered. Some of “Rocketman’s” most visually distinctive bits come when Fletcher leans into the fantastical aspects of a life bordering on timeless mythos—moments that build up and build up before we even realize, to marvelous catharsis, that they even have been.
Hall’s screenplay is intelligent in knowing which parts of Elton’s early life to examine with an astute eye, and which to provide the SparkNotes version of. I was still getting warm in my seat before this iteration of Elton became a rock ‘n roll force, Hall having efficiently established Elton’s partnership with his song-writing partner (played by to fine effect by Jamie Bell, a pint-sized figure compared to Elton’s grandiosity) as well as the emotional gulfs carved out where a parents’ love would normally be found.
But it never felt rushed; rather, reconciled. Elton’s life continuously resembles a cosmic force, and the reality-shifting flourishes Fletcher conjures up in tandem with cinematographer George Richmond push the borders of realism in “Rocketman” to material-appropriate heights while still – somewhat miraculously – never betraying the grimier parts of the story.
And as Fletcher and Hall depict, Elton’s story has plenty of grimy bits. His story is an astral plane of neon-colored fauna and sequin-lined streets with as many valleys as peaks. “Rocketman” varies in its ability to make us feel like we should care for the people that come and go and return in Elton’s life – at worst, they form a carousel of Disney-villain-level caricatures that feel mismatches against Egerton’s nuanced, measure performance – but how the fragility of Elton’s relationships impact him is hauntingly stark.
It’s been a while since we’ve gotten such an uncompromising account of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll lifestyle. The more Hall’s screenplay constructs, with careful elegance, the inner turmoil and fights Elton waged with himself, the more emotionally devastating it is to see Egerton embody them. The film is consistently considered and honest, and Egerton – drenched in sweat and unrelenting impulse – perhaps has never been better for it.
Some of the highest praise I can lend to “Rocketman” is that, however dramatized they may be in an otherwise very true-to-real-life movie, the sentiments of certain songs of Elton’s will have me absorbing them via a different emotional frequency for the near future. By the time addiction and piles of pills have brought Elton John – adored by millions, but never quite loved – to his lowest point, his evoking forces both angelic and devilish when we’re first introduced to him in the opening minutes takes on whole new meaning. It’s the movie providing that there’s still room for subtext in a genre typically undermined as an exercise in cinematic Mad Libs.
The best part of that? The movie never pats itself on the back for it, never lends itself applause for its creativity or its nuance; both hands are already stroking, evenly-keeled, the ivory keys of cinema, composing a story that feels – first and foremost, and in sharp contrast to last fall’s bone-dry “Bohemian Rhapsody” – like a testament to one of rock history’s greatest redemption stories. Fletcher utilizes Elton’s music when he’s earned the unwritten right; the music advances what we see on screen; it doesn’t exonerate it.
That “Rocketman” doesn’t quite know how to use that momentum in its final third is no cause for great concern. Elton is still with us in 2019, after all, and so Fletcher’s movie is not destined to be a definitive account. The resolution is a soaring end compared to the hell we’ve seen Elton John journey through, but the movie feels like it’s earned a bit more than an uncanny recreation to the rockstar’s “I’m Still Standing” music video as an emotional crescendo. The exact moment the movie feels like it can afford not being so humble is when the credits and this-is-where-he-is-now details begin to roll on the screen.
Still, “Rocketman” reverberates as a biopic that chooses not to be handcuffed by formulaic genre underpinnings. In many ways, watching is like attending an aging rocker’s concert; energetic peaks, somber soliloquys, nostalgia and appreciation. The movie’s finale may be a simple ending, but now that it’s done I can put down in words—how wonderful life is now “Rocketman’s” in the world.
“Rocketman” is rated R for language throughout some drug use and sexual content
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard
Directed by Dexter Fletcher