Another rock biography with an Oscar-caliber performance so soon after Bohemian Rhapsody? Critics have been more welcoming to Rocketman, starring an electrifying Taron Egerton as the young, addicted, conflicted, gay and gifted Elton John, than they were to the story of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, which had to settle for becoming the highest-grossing music biopic of all time ($900 million). The PG-13 Rhapsody took heat for sanitizing Mercury’s sex, drugs and rock & roll lifestyle and for being, in the words of Bill Maher, “not gay enough.” Rest assured that there’s plenty of sex, not to mention pills being popped and coke getting snorted, courtesy of this movie’s R-rated parameters. But the film owes its success less to shock value than to sheer cinematic inventiveness and Egerton’s total immersion in the role.
The Kingsman star gets so far inside the man and his music that he and Elton — a shy kid off stage and a strutting peacock on — seem to breathe as one. And unlike Rhapsody‘s lip-syncing Rami Malek, Egerton is a virtuoso who does his own singing and busts his own moves. While Dexter Fletcher, who finished Bohemian Rhapsody after original filmmaker Bryan Singer was fired for going AWOL, fuels this musical fantasia with pinwheeling ingenuity, Egerton is the one who gives its heart. It’s more than a little bit funny how a great piece of acting can knock the hell out of tainted preconceptions.
The first image is of Elton barreling off stage dressed in satanic red with devil horns and plopping down for a group therapy session to exorcise his personal demons. Screenwriter Lee Hall, who worked with Elton on the Broadway adaptation of Billy Elliot, uses the rehab device to allow the musician to confront his childhood self. In one scene, the flamboyant pianist duets with his boyhood avatar at the bottom of a swimming pool complete with a piano. We see a lonely child, born Reginald Dwight in a drab British suburb. He’s unloved by parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), who divorce and substitute their neglect with indifference.
Elton’s solace comes from his piano (he’s a prodigy) and a friendship with Bernie Taupin (a superb Jamie Bell in a deeply felt, beautifully empathetic portrayal), a poet whose allusive lyrics would bond the two in a lifetime collaboration. In an inspired sequence, Elton puts music to Bernie’s lyrics for “Your Song” (“I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words/how wonderful life is while you’re in the world”). From a few tinkling notes on the piano to a fully-realized performance, the “Your Song” moment is a gorgeously staged heartbreaker. Fletcher daringly refuses to confine the musical numbers to the concert stage. At one point, when Elton’s excesses drive Bernie away, the two share verses on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” It’s Bernie’s own feelings being expressed when he sings, “So goodbye yellow brick road/where the dogs of society howl/you can’t plant me in your penthouse/I’m going back to my plough.”
Elton and Bernie are the film’s core love story. Since Bernie is straight, there’s no sex. That comes for the closeted Elton in the suave person of John Reid, who would become his manager and Machiavellian albatross. As played by the outstanding Richard Madden — Robb Stark on Game of Thrones and a much-buzzed Emmy contender for his role in Bodyguard — Reid exudes a seductive eroticism, equal parts dazzle and danger.
Fletcher does not neglect the flash that made Elton such a galvanizing stage presence. Making his debut in Los Angeles at the Troubadour, with the Beach Boys and Leon Russell in attendance, Elton literally levitates off the stage singing “Crocodile Rock.” So does the audience. It’s a lavish, risky, anything-goes production number, splendidly shot by George Richmond. But a melancholy pervades Elton when the lights go off. The script hints that Elton hides behind his gaudy stage gear (Julian Day did the wittily extravagant costumes) to disguise the fear that makes him feel small and unexceptional inside and given to thoughts of suicide. For a while Elton, claiming to be bisexual, hides his self-loathing in a short-lived marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) , a union that fools no one, least of all its two participants.
Egerton careens through Elton’s catalogue of power anthems (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Rocketman”) and irresistible earworms (Tiny Dancer, Bennie and the Jets, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me). But he also finds the hurt that pervades every note of “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” Rocketman ends in the early 1990s just as Elton starts to pull himself together (he’s been sober for nearly 30 years). It’s no secret that the singer and his husband David Furnish exerted control as producers on the film. Still, this is a warts-and-all portrait of the artist as a young mess. There’s no concealing Elton’s cruelty to others and himself.
There’s also no denying the pleasure of watching him perform, and “I’m Still Standing” earns its place as a climactic number. It’s kind of a miracle that he is. Currently on a career-capping world tour that will end with Sir Elton, 72, spending more time with his husband and two children, the performer takes a valedictory bow that doesn’t hide the bruises. This biopic has been a long time coming — photographer David LaChapelle was once scheduled to direct, and actors as diverse as Tom Hardy and Justin Timberlake wanted to play the part. But Rocketman has found its moment with exactly the right director and star in place, and in this euphoric blast of a film we watch him get to a space where he is “looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid.” Forget any stumbles into the valley of cliches, this one you don’t want to miss.