The opening moments of Dexter Fletcher’s stylish and greatly entertaining jukebox musical “Rocketman” reminded me of Bob Fosse’s 1980 masterpiece “All That Jazz.”
Fosse’s semi-autobiographical classic starts with Roy Scheider’s legendary choreographer-director Joe Gideon conversing with the Angel of Death — yep, the Angel of Death — and she’s played by Jessica Lange.
“Rocketman” kicks off in a similarly dark and trippy place, as Taron Egerton’s Elton John — clad in a campy, blood-orange onstage costume, complete with wings and devil’s horns — bursts into a rehab session and rattles off his addictions, from drinking to drugs to sex to, well, shopping.
He is the classic self-destructive rock star, the man who has everything and wants for nothing and is adored by millions but feels alone and empty and broken.
Where did it all begin? Why thanks for asking. Cue a lavish production number straight out of a Broadway musical, taking us back to the very beginning, when Sir Elton Hercules John was a lonely little boy named Reginald Kenneth Dwight, growing up in a virtually love-free home in Pinner, Middlesex ...
Excellent. From the get-go, this film tells us we’re in for a real show.
Elton John deserves a movie operating on a much grander scale than a standard, paint-by-numbers showbiz biopic, and “Rocketman” is a suitably snazzy vehicle.
Director Fletcher (who took over for the MIA Bryan Singer in the final weeks of principal photography on “Bohemian Rhapsody”) has delivered a glitzy, ambitious and gorgeously appointed interpretive musical worthy of Sir Elton’s glorious artistry. And while this is a largely affectionate and sympathetic tribute, the film pulls no punches when focusing on Elton’s mercurial personality and his self-loathing, nearly fatal deep dives into addiction.
Of course, even when there’s a high level of creativity and production value, this kind of film leans so heavily on the lead performance. It’s a daunting challenge to portray a living music legend, to capture a look and a sound and a persona without the performance turning into an impersonation. If it goes sideways, there goes your movie.
No worries on that front.
From the moment Taron Egerton strides into the film, wearing that sparkly getup with the horns and crashing the rehab session, we believe Egerton as Elton. We believe him as the painfully shy prodigy Reginald Dwight, desperate for his parents’ approval; as the genius who sits at the piano and finds the perfect notes to breathe lasting musical life into Bernie Taupin’s brilliant lyrics; as a master showman in command of the worldwide stage; and as a man who nearly kills himself because he’s been conditioned to believe no one will ever really love him.
It’s a lovely, powerful, resonant performance.
The screenplay by Lee Hall takes full advantage of the wide-ranging catalog of Elton John/Bernie Taupin classics, cleverly matching songs from “Take Me to the Pilot” to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” to “I’m Still Standing” to match the narrative. It’s astonishing how often certain lyrics are so perfectly suited to mirroring and expanding upon the moment at hand, resulting in some truly beautiful sequences, as when Elton, on the cusp of stardom, sings “Tiny Dancer” (“Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band ...”) at a groovy, increasingly dreamlike party in Hollywood.
At times this device requires a timeline shuffle, e.g., a performance number set to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” in a rough-and-tumble honky-tonk joint when Elton was still a teenager named Reginald Dwight, or Elton belting out his 1973 hit “Crocodile Rock” on the night of his American debut at the Troubadour in West Hollywood in August of 1970.
And yet, for all its fanciful touches, “Rocketman” has an almost documentary-level eye for detail when it comes to re-creating historic chapters, such as the sold-out shows at Dodger Stadium in 1975 when Elton wore a sequined Dodgers uniform and belted out one hit after another to the adoring masses.
Richard Madden (Robb Stark from “Game of Thrones”) is excellent as John Reid, who stays on as Elton’s manager long after their love affair explodes into pieces. Jamie Bell delivers solid work as Bernie Taupin, Elton’s partner in magnificent songwriting and his most trusted friend. Bryce Dallas Howard turns in finely nuanced work as Elton’s mother, who just couldn’t find a way to love her son.
On a couple of occasions the sentimentality turns mawkish. (Little Reggie keeps asking when he’s going to get a hug, to the point where we want to say: “Never, kid! Your parents are the worst, and they’re never going to hug you!”) We also get the occasional out-of-left-field scene, e.g., Elton in the studio recording the bouncy confection “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” with Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon).
At the end of the day, “Rocketman” manages to be campy and yet sincere, serious and yet ridiculous, profound and yet silly, and quite wonderful.
Just like Elton himself.