NEW YORK — Rocketman tracks the painful trajectory of so many musical biopics. Sir Elton John’s just-released life story hits the same marks that other personalities have struck, on screen and off: Youthful obscurity, rare talent, ambition, lucky break, celebrity, super-stardom, alcohol, drugs, descent, and either rescue, redemption, and renaissance or disenchantment, desperation, and death. Fortunately for Sir Elton, 72, and his billions of fans worldwide, he steered his rocket toward blue skies before it was too late.
Never mind that oft-trod outline. Rocketman soars.
Poster image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
The former Reginald Dwight’s journey from little boy in Pinner, northwest London, to global cultural force includes twists, turns, gold, and pyrite. This resulting epic is beautifully conceived, acted, and executed.
This visual and auditory feast is at its finest when it illustrates Reginald’s prodigious skills. His stunning ability to duplicate musical selections by ear, instantly and faithfully, gains him early adult attention. Barely out of his teens, Reginald’s warm and endearing relationship with Bernie Taupin finds the tunesmith fitting unforgettable melodies to the wordsmith’s powerful lyrics, usually as swiftly as a short-order cook. Their first big hit, the gorgeous ballad Your Song, required just a few passes of Elton’s fingers over his piano keys before the ground-setting notes emerged, nearly fully formed, as if they had been trapped in this genius’ brain and desperate to escape, like a genie in an ancient lamp.
(Watch Sir Elton in 1997 receive the instruction manual for an oven and effortlessly set it to music in under two minutes.)
Chronologically, Rocketman’s songs do not strictly follow Elton’s discography. Rather, Lee Hall’s inventive script invokes just the right song to dramatize just the right moment, even if a memory in the 1950s is illustrated with a tune from the early 2000s. This time-bending technique will slip quietly past those unfamiliar with Sir Elton’s oeuvre. Die-hards, however, should find this clever rather than jarring.
Rocketman’s musical performances range from low-key recording sessions, such as Elton and Kiki Dee cutting Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, to full-blown production numbers filled with dozens of non-tiny dancers, striking sets, cinematographer George Richmond’s swooping cameras, and the toe-tapping sounds that, so far, have scored Sir Elton 26 gold records, 38 platinum titles, and 300 million units sold. The “B*tch is Back” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” sequences channel the artistic verve and iridescent splendor that flowed like red wine from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the 1940s and ’50s.
Less buoyant are the scenes in which Elton soaks his sorrows in white wine and plenty more. As he wrote May 26 in The Guardian: “It took a fairly Herculean effort to get yourself noticed for taking too much cocaine in the music industry of 1970s L.A., but I was clearly prepared to put the hours in.”
Family letdowns, romantic frustration, and the relentless demands of generating — at one point — 5 percent of Earth’s musical recordings all tore psychologically at Elton by his mid-20s. As a confirmed Eltonhead since about fourth grade, it was tough for me to watch my musical Hercules in such turmoil. But it is no spoiler to write that these valleys are a bit easier to traverse with Elton knowing that he still walks among us.
This stylish film is an irresistible cocktail of reality and fantasy, as Elton reflects on his life. Some of his recollections are straightforward. Others are narcotic-propelled dream scenarios, brimming with rich scenery and technical razzmatazz. And what costumes! Thanks to designer Julian Day, this marvel must have been a full-employment act for every seamstress and fitter in Hollywood.
Rocketman’s solid fuel is Taron Egerton, 29, who fully inhabits this international-star-making role. He perfectly captures Elton’s moods — blue and otherwise. He struggles to overcome shyness and self-doubt. (“I hadn’t even wanted to be a rock star in the first place,” Sir Elton wrote in The Guardian. “I just wanted to be a successful songwriter.”) Egerton displays Elton’s sense of wonder upon reaching Los Angeles for his breakthrough at Doug Weston’s Troubadour nightclub in 1970. Egerton shows Elton’s eyes dazzle as fame arrives. And they fill with tears as his road grows rocky. As if Egerton’s Oscar-worthy acting were not enough, he also sings beautifully throughout this film. He presents Elton’s beloved rock & roll hits with a voice that is his own and yet amazingly close to the real deal.
Jamie Bell, first seen as Billy Elliott, delivers another stellar portrayal as Taupin, the man who quite likely has loved Elton longer and more loyally than anyone else, although only Platonically. Bell shares the audience’s awe as he quickly discovers just how deeply gifted his new collaborator is. He also reflects the audience’s sadness as Elton’s demons emerge, and he struggles to keep them from becoming his only companions.
Richard Madden is, by turns, alluring and abrasive as John Reid, Elton’s first love and personal manager. It was an unenviable task for Reid to encourage this young musical stallion to reach his potential without galloping permanently into a cloud of white powder. Still, Reid could have handled this challenge far less cavalierly. Madden rides this dramatic arc with increasingly chilly smoothness.
Director Dexter Fletcher (previous triumph: Bohemian Rhapsody) tells this tale with panache and a pace that never flags. He deftly masters small scenes of Elton’s intimacy with the men in his life to breathtaking musical interludes that fall short only for the absence of Gene Kelly.
Whether by highway or yellow brick road, go experience Rocketman on the largest screen possible. Don’t wait for it to hit Netflix. I caught this film at Times Square’s AMC Empire 25. The upgraded Dolby Cinema theater’s massive screen, sparkling resolution, and rows of speakers along both walls furnished the full-body punch that executive producer Sir Elton John and his smashing team envisioned.
Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News Contributor and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research. Michael Malarkey contributed research to this article.