If this recent wave of films about the music business (A Star is Born, Vox Lux, Bohemian Rhapsody) is any indication, being a rock star seems kind of terrible. Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, about singer Elton John (played here by Taron Egerton), also does not shy away from the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but it does so by presenting Elton John’s life as a never-ending musical.
When we are introduced to John as a child, then called Reggie Dwight, he is piano prodigy who longs for the love of his absent father and his careless mother (Bryce Dallas Howard). Only his gran (Gemma Jones) seems to want to nurture him and his obvious talent. Once “Reg” is introduced to songwriter Bernie Taupin (the wonderful Jamie Bell), they begin making music and quickly become successful. However when Reg becomes Elton and takes on the obviously-up-to-no-good John Reid (Richard Madden) as his manager, his personal life starts to fall apart.
Yes, the structure is familiar and one gets a sense of deja vu when witnessing another tale of the pitfalls of stardom, but by incorporating John’s songs into the story and making it a musical director Fletcher gives a well-worn story more energy and pizzazz. Even the heavy moments of drugs and heartbreak are given a breath of life by this approach. The music moves the story along rather than bringing it to a halt, such as “The Bitch is Back” being our introduction to John as a child in his suburban neighborhood or the titular song playing as John is saved from an overdose and performing at Dodgers Stadium. The approach gives the structure a flow and ease that dialogue and exposition would not.
It also helps that there is a powerful performance at the center. Egerton has never been better than he is here, playing decades worth of highs and lows and doing his own singing without missing a beat. Bell is lovely as Bernie and their platonic love story ends up becoming the heart of the film. Madden is appropriately slimy and brings a lot out of a thin part. Howard is given even less to work with, but brings depth to the surface that suggests she is not the heartless monster Elton sees her as.
However the musical approach often takes away from developing the other secondary characters of the film. One wishes they could’ve spent more time explaining Reid’s horrible treatment of Elton during his time as his manager or his parents’ cold demeanors toward him growing up. But this is Elton’s story after all, so perhaps if he has never gotten that closure we will not get it either.
Even if it does not hit every high note it could have, Rocketman is still accessible and enjoyable, led by Egerton’s fearless work in the lead. Even if it is a bit paint-by-numbers, it is painted with bright colors.
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