Early on in Rocketman, the new biopic about musical legend Elton John (played by Kingsman’s Taron Egerton), Elton’s first manager Dick James (Stephen Graham) advises him to “buy something flashy” in preparation for his debut concert at the Troubadour. Unfortunately, because Rocketman was one of my Top 5 most anticipated movies of 2019, the first couple acts boil down to nothing more than that advice – something flashy.
The movie stands as unique in the biopic genre as it is also a musical, running through some of Elton’s greatest hits, including “Your Song,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and my personal favorite, “I’m Still Standing.” Egerton does all of his own vocals for the film, and his renditions of these songs are phenomenal. He’s covered “I’m Still Standing” before – in the 2016 animated film Sing – but he even manages to do something entirely different with it here.
That said, Rocketman falls victim to the same issue with a lot of these biopics, most recently Bohemian Rhapsody, in that it becomes a greatest hits visual album, a celebration of everything that made Elton John a legend without really examining the man he is when you strip all that away. It tries to, by opening the film with a series of vignettes to John’s childhood (where he’s played as a boy by Matthew Illesley and a young teenager by Kit Connor), but once Egerton primarily takes over in the middle of a cover of “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” none of that personal storytelling appears to matter anymore. We get glimpses of Elton’s alcoholism and drug addiction and his abusive relationship with boyfriend and second manager John Reid (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden), but none of it feels as intimate as it should. In other words, I rarely felt connected to Egerton’s Elton, unlike Illesley’s or Connor’s, because he often lacks character.
Visually, however, the film is brilliant. For example, the aforementioned Troubadour scene, part of which can be seen in one of the trailers, literally shows how free and elated Elton becomes during his shows, as he and the audience begin defying gravity during Egerton’s cover of “Crocodile Rock.” In another moment, Egerton becomes a silhouette and dances among them while paramedics pump Elton’s stomach of pills after a suicide attempt.
The movie also manages to save itself in the third act, reverting back to what it opened as. The whole movie uses Elton’s confessions in an Alcoholics Anonymous-like setting as a framing device, but the first part of the third act roots itself in that meeting as the story. And while Elton talks, faces from his past, like his mother (Jurassic World’s Bryce Dallas Howard), father (Steven Mackintosh) and John Reid, show up in his imagination to confront him (though really, he is confronting them). He forgives his parents for all the pain they put him through and all the pain he put them through. Then there’s a stunningly powerful realization, when Reid tries to manipulate Elton into knowing “what his problem is,” Egerton softly-but-commandingly takes control and says, “My problem is ever thinking you loved me. It was throwing away my life to hold onto something I never even had.” The scene concludes with a callback to the opening that reveals the film’s message, and just like that, Rocketman is wonderful again.
The film could use more character substance throughout the rising action of its narrative, but just as Egerton does after taking off during his cover of the film’s namesake, it impressively sticks the landing.
Rocketman launches into theaters on Friday, May 31.
4 winged platform heels out of 5