Rocketman is not your average biopic. It offers something abundantly fresher: an honest, fantastical musical embodying the full truth of Sir Elton John’s experience. Dexter Fletcher emerges as a kindred spirit, a director who gets it. After stepping in as an uncredited director to save Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) – let’s be clear, the success is his – Fletcher has taken all he learned and made a significantly better film. One that floored this critic, with joyous and sad tears, a thrilling barn burner of a musical that creates new imagery for one of music’s most eccentric icons.
Taron Egerton perfectly excels as Elton John. If last year’s Best Actor Oscar went to Rami Malek for his perfectly fine pantomime performance, what hardware can we spare for Egerton for his endlessly endearing turn as the star and exemplary singing voice? As he bangs out “Crocodile Rock” at West Hollywood’s Troubadour, the audience levitates, suspended midair by this phenomenal new sound. A classic like “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is given thrilling youthful spirit at a carnival, where long shots and captivating choreography make the picture sing. Actors phase in and out of shots, moving from acting to singing and completing the lines. Likewise, “Tiny Dancer” is reinvigorated with John’s expatriated disillusionment, with love and American success, and defining his relationship with long-time writing partner, Bernie Taupin (an exceptionally brilliant Jamie Bell – cast your best supporting actor ballets now). While John plays to his flamboyant superstardom, Taupin has cowboy dreams and a simple disposition. Paired together they created a stunning voice in music. We discover underplayed new favorites like “I Want Love,” where his parents trade lines about what a broken-down man his father had become, and gives the musical a spiritual through line, if we do not feel good enough, can’t we find some love for ourselves. When the excesses and reality of a hard-fast life come to a head, John’s most rocking song, “Bennie and the Jets” becomes the very symbol of his alienation – highlighting the great function and flexibility of the musical – to pair tragedy with jukebox resilience, and always find the right image for the song.
The impetus for the story is redemption through recovery. The memories of John’s life are devised through a simple storytelling device. In the opening, he walks into a rehab circle, dressed in the most absurd of costumes, and says he is addicted to everything – alcohol, cocaine, sex, pot, shopping, what have you – and details his story in the way a newly recovering person would. That is, with rose-colored glasses (and in his case, oh they are some great glasses) and when it’s bad, with the self-fulfilling despair that keeps people in addiction. It becomes a story of overarching hopefulness. This is the kind of story we get after a legend has passed on, victim to their disease, but John lives, and incredibly, has given his blessing for a not always flattering story.
Egerton and Fletcher make a great team in its telling. They convincingly create the new narrative of Elton John. This is the story as he would tell it. We know Egerton is game, having been in job training for a while – performing John’s work in Sing (2016) and playing beside him in Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017). Do they not deeply admire each other as artists? This film certainly shows a deeper affection than anyone else has by playing an artist. Nothing is shied away from, the sex, drugs, and dizzying talent of the character are upheld. There is not enough that can be said of Egerton’s ability to play up John’s easy put-on confidence, or inherent internal sadness, often within the same scene. It’s a truly brilliant role, perfectly considered and acted out.
Dexter Fletcher deserves the largest credit here. He has done impeccable work behind the camera, enlivening old songs with startling newness and immediacy. Everything is given value and shaped around something that matters in the story. There are no dry moments to cut whatsoever. It is a modern masterpiece of musical storytelling, an ingenious director at the height of his visual powers.
There are no doubts that Rocketman has exceeded the populist format of Bohemian Rhapsody. It operates in another stratosphere of pure inventiveness and hard-earned affection, for the subjects and the audience. There is nothing like this out there. Rocketman comes by all its imbued feelings with impeccable honesty. This is the true throwback to the Ken Russell school of filmmaking (see Tommy, 1975) – and a lesson for the future of celebrating musicians on film. I think it’s gonna be a long, long time until it’s ever matched.