‘Rocketman’ review: Elton John, the biopic — better (by far) than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
By Michael Phillips
May 30, 2019 at 11:05 AM
“Rocketman” is more like it. In relation to last year’s jolly mediocrity “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which stumbled across the surface of Queen front-man Freddie Mercury’s life and music, the new Elton John biopic arrives with a similar load of biopic clichés and set-ups. Yet it moves with confidence; it’s vivid; it pulls off a riskier, full-on musical fantasy version of one pop superstar’s story.
Best known as Eggsy in the “Kingsman” movies, Taron Egerton’s as good as Rami Malek was in his Oscar-winning turn as Mercury. Better, actually. Egerton does his own singing, and the performance feels fully activated, unafraid of the rougher edges. Given a wider dynamic range to explore, Egerton conveys the insecure lost soul — lost, then found — underneath the insane frippery and moneyed indulgences. “Rocketman” feels plenty protective of its subject’s image (Elton John executive-produced), and it’s highly selective. But it’s a movie that works as a movie, not a pandering trip down memory lane.
The songs John co-wrote with his longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin, are put to use where they’re most useful, not necessarily where the historical record would place them. The director is Dexter Fletcher, who finished making “Bohemian Rhapsody” after Bryan Singer got the heave-ho. “Rocketman” screenwriter Lee Hall wrote “Billy Elliot” and then adapted his story for the musical stage. With this new project, Hall has solved both problems in one stroke; the movie already feels like a stage show, blessed with honest-to-God terrific titles including “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Honky Cat,” “Tiny Dancer” and so many more.
Half-wrecked after too many years of chemical and sexual excess, Elton checks into rehab sporting an orange jumpsuit, headdress plumage and devil’s horns. The group rehab scenes trigger a largely chronological series of flashbacks. We meet young Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley), a shy phenom at the piano, growing up in Northwest London with a blowsy mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, a tad campy), a stern, disapproving father (Steven Mackintosh) and a career-saving, supportive grandmother (Gemma Jones).
Soon enough Egerton takes over his own flashbacks. There’s an unusually pleasing meet-cute scene for Reggie and his songwriter partner, lyricist Taupin, played earnestly and well by Jamie Bell. From there, it’s the expected zigzag to the pinnacle. The early scenes include John’s 1970 LA debut at the Troubadour. Here, as elsewhere, “Rocketman” goes a little wild, treating the scene fantastically, not realistically; the performer literally levitates, as does the entire audience, and the scene works. We feel it; we see what it must’ve felt like to be there.
The sexy, exploitative manager John Reid (Richard Madden), soon to be Elton’s lover; the ill-advised marriage to Renate Blauel (a brief cameo by Celinde Schoenmaker); these and other chapters flip through “Rocketman,” illustrating on the fly the protagonist’s reckless, egocentric private life, a life devoid of much in the way of peace or real love. The musical sensation only finds romantic fulfillment in the epilogue covering his marriage to David Furnish and life with their children, during the end credits.
Would the film have been more gratifying if it cast a wider net? Maybe. Whereas “Bohemian Rhapsody” at least pulled it together for its Live Aid finale, “Rocketman” rushes a bit in the final lap, and shortchanges the audience musically. En route, though, it’s very enjoyable. Egerton is the main attraction, but the movie underneath and all around him works, too.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“Rocketman” — 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content)