As if to establish the appropriate flourish right from the top, “Rocketman,” Dexter Fletcher’s brassy big-screen fantasia on the breakthrough years of Elton John’s career, immediately sets a cheeky tone by giving its leading character an explosive, bravura entrance, clad horns-to-toe in a shimmering devil costume and already fully-formed into the superstar whose razzle-dazzle image we know so well. This will be no glossy docudrama that merely dramatizes the “facts” of a famous life, it seems to be telling us, but rather a surreal look back at that life taken through an impressionistic mélange of music and memory.
Screenwriter Lee Hall has adapted John’s early biography into a long flashback, told from the perspective of the singer’s recollections while undergoing treatment for substance abuse at the height of his career. Music mingles with his story in his mind as he takes a roomful of fellow patients on a hazy tour of his life; the factual details blur into a wash of color and movement, and ghosts of past and present mingle in song-and-dance fantasies set to his own iconic compositions.
It’s an approach that makes all the difference. Even the best film biographies often falter as they try to take an entire, complex, real human life and distill it into an approximately two-hour narrative that ties everything up into an easily digestible package. Only an exceptionally gifted writer can accomplish such a feat without conflating, oversimplifying, and resorting to the kind of pat, clichéd dialogue that never rings true even when delivered by the finest actors in the business.
Hall’s solution, realized with style and vision by Fletcher’s skilled direction, is to abandon any semblance of objective reality in favor of interpreting the facts through the prism of Elton’s fantastical imagination. There’s no need to be concerned about maintaining an accurate chronology; the narrative bounces between periods of the singer’s life at will, underscoring connections between the formative experiences of his life and revealing the emotional threads that chart his path from precocious childhood to self-indulgent superstardom and beyond. This conveniently eliminates the potential for quibbling over anachronisms – such as where and when Elton is wearing each outlandish costume, lovingly re-created by Julian Day from the singer’s wardrobe over the years — that are always problematic for fans seeking accuracy in depictions of their idols’ lives.
More importantly, though, it allows for the conceit of presenting Elton’s life as a quasi-musical. Powered by the eloquent melodies and lyrics of John’s iconic songbook with longtime writing partner Bernie Taupin, the flights of fancy it permits lift us from the frustrating mess that is real life and into a realm where even the most complex, painful experiences become coherent and beautiful. Fletcher draws from the iconography of classic Hollywood and the edgy flash of modern music video to create visual poetry; from the infectious youthful energy that explodes from “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” to the melancholy candor expressed through “Tiny Dancer,” he matches song to mood in a way that gets to the emotional heart of Elton’s story and delivers moments of pure cinema that stick with us long after the credits have rolled.
Unfortunately, the film is unable to completely escape the pitfalls of its genre. The tired tropes of the “rock-and-roll bio” still manage to insert themselves throughout, and characters (such as Elton’s parents, or his first manager and lover John Reid) are unfavorably rendered into antagonists to for the sake of dramatic conflict. Since most of what we see is presented through the filter of a drug-addled mental state, this latter point might be forgiven; still, in a film which ultimately espouses forgiveness and taking responsibility for one’s own behavior as keys to finding a path to self-actualization, casting real people as little more than villains strikes one as a particularly disappointing cop-out.
Still, it’s not enough to overshadow the good things about Fletcher’s movie, which benefits not only from his own colorful imagination but from the superb work of his performers. Taron Egerton’s honestly drawn Elton captures both the unrepentant boyishness and the diva-esque petulance that characterize of the pop icon’s persona, and finds the humanity that gives us a leading character worth loving. Jamie Bell portrays Taupin with exactly the right easy-going, grounded energy needed to illuminate why these two men – whose partnership yielded some of the greatest songs of the era and is the reason the story of Elton John is really the story of them both – were such a perfect artistic match. The chemistry between the two players allows this relationship to serve as the movie’s “love story,” a refreshingly platonic one far more significant than any minor romance that might have been explored.
The talent extends into the supporting cast. Richard Madden, as Reid, may be limited by the broad strokes with which is character is written, but he makes the most of his screen time, providing subtle dimensions that somehow keep him from being completely unlikable; likewise, the oddly-cast Bryce Dallas Howard avoids turning Elton’s mother into an unfeeling monster. Smaller turns by Gemma Jones, Tate Donovan, and Charlie Rowe also make deep impressions.
Finally, many audiences will be concerned about the handling of sexuality in a film about an openly gay pop star. In Hall’s deft screenplay, Elton’s sexuality is clearly established, but it does not define him, nor does it control his journey. While some will doubtless see this as an avoidance or a cheat, it’s a refreshing sign of progress that a film can be made about a gay character which doesn’t have to be about a struggle toward acceptance. As an added sign of diminishing taboo, the much-publicized sex scenes between Egerton and Madden, though comparatively tame, are handled with a satisfying authenticity that speaks volumes about the film’s intentions to represent with honor.
With a movie like “Rocketman,” there is great temptation to nitpick. It deals with a beloved real-world figure, and one who’s still very much alive, at that; it necessarily invites debate about the portrayal of queer people in our popular entertainment, a hot button issue that ensures a wide range of audience reaction; perhaps most dangerously, it takes a bold and unorthodox artistic avenue to tell its story, something that is often met with distaste by a public looking for something more concrete and accessible. To be sure, sometimes it falls short of its ambition; but considering all that could have been wrong with it, it succeeds beyond reasonable expectation not only to offer a balanced and enlightening portrayal of its central character, but to entertain and dazzle us as well. For a movie about Elton John, nothing could be more appropriate.