Rocketman, the tumultuous story of spangly superstar Elton John is a biography, a musical and a showcase of his back catalogue. A failure at one of them is saved by an outstanding achievement in the other two.
Reginald Dwight (Taron Egerton) born a suburban nobody, changes his name to Elton John and leaves behind normality. His talent as a musician and singer, combined with the lyrics of Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), catapult him into the stratosphere of the music industry. At one point he is responsible for more than 4 percent of total global music sales. Blazing success is unable to burn away the shadows in his life. He had a father who didn’t show him love in childhood and a mother who believed that by being gay he chose to give up his chance of being loved as an adult. Unable to cope with the combination of super star adoration and a lack of real love he spirals into addiction and self-sabotage. Close to death and career failure he eventually gets sober, revives his career and finds the love that was missing.
Taron Egerton as Elton is eye opening. Previous roles in the Kingsman franchise may have had the requisite camp elements but they did not flag his versatility. He captures the look and body language of Elton without resorting to mimicry. When placed in some of Elton’s most iconic and memorable pop videos it takes a squint to make sure it is the actor and not the star. His singing, rather than lip syncing, can happily be swapped out for the original tracks without reducing their power. Egerton is a stadium singer. Tom Hardy was originally supposed to play the role but unless the future proves he is also a secret rock star it was the right choice to go with Egerton.
It is as a biography that the film falls short. The ego strokes to Elton quickly dilute the pretense of realism. Whether this is down to the writing by Lee Hall, the direction from Dexter Fletcher or a contractual requirement from Sir Elton is hard to tell. The movie is a breathless account of the people in Elton’s life having his genius revealed to them. His bad behavior is the result of the wrongdoings of others or his secretly admirable desire to be loved. The casting process should have been a warning sign. Elton, for all his talent, is stretching if the first choice to embody himself is Tom Hardy. When he finally confesses to some faults in group therapy it comes across as a gauzy pretext to show Elton’s fans how humble he is. The congratulatory final clips that recount the vast amounts he has raised for charity will fit better in his eulogy than his biography.
But damn, as a musical it works. The legendary pop anthems occur naturally and appropriately. They tell stories, build emotions, create drama and add impact. Nothing feels gratuitously forced and yet it manages to deliver all the hits. Songs include The Bitch is Back, Border Song, Pinball Wizard, and, of course, I’m Still Standing. Elton’s back catalogue is lovingly represented and, if the audience is not familiar with it, they get a first class education. Rocketman may only be the coiffed version of Elton John but it captures the rock star glory.