First, the good news: Taron Egerton gives a breathtakingly good performance in Rocketman. He even accomplishes the near-impossible: making you forget you’re not watching the real Elton John. The musical numbers that punctuate the movie are propulsive and imaginatively staged. I can’t picture anyone not being swept up by their vitality and sheer likability. I wish I could say the same for the overall film.
The story is told in flashback as the flamboyantly costumed star attends his first AA meeting and begins a series of confessions. This takes us back to his childhood, where we see how the precocious 5-year-old Reginald Dwight started picking out tunes on the piano and revealing his innate talent. Rocketman is at its best in this early portion. We see how the youngster gains confidence as a performer, becomes a professional touring musician in his teens and meets his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). We’re rooting for him to succeed and when he does it’s easy to share his jubilation—especially as we hear the team’s first great hits, beginning with “Your Song.”
But as the film goes on it becomes routine and predictable. Lee Hall’s screenplay may be telling the truth but it plays like a parade of show-business biopic clichés: there are greedy producers and promoters, drug and drink-filled parties, and a turning-point when Elton dumps his earliest supporters because of his lust for a slick guy (Richard Madden) who becomes his manager and lover.
The superstar also seems to be using this film (which he executive-produced) to exact revenge on his parents, who withheld affection and approval even after he became a success. They play a major role in this rendition of his life.
Music is the movie’s saving grace, for director Dexter Fletcher and for us as well. The songs are so good—from “Take Me to the Pilot” to “Tiny Dancer”—and the performances so dynamic that they make the dramatics surrounding them seem all the more banal.
In real life, Elton John is not only a great songwriter and showman; he is a survivor. His charitable work battling AIDS and HIV is laudable, to say the least. But the celebratory final moments of Rocketman can’t compensate for the often-dreary narrative that leads up to them.