When did Elton John become a rock star? Arguably it was when he played at Los Angeles’ landmark Troubadour club in 1970, which introduced him to American audiences and ignited his celebrity. And the way Rocketman depicts this moment… whew. I was in tears of joy, but also of awe, for here this is a cinematic moment not of earthly triumph but of supernatural wonder: as John pounds on the piano and belts his heart out, his feet and legs rise up behind him in weightless liberation, only his hands on the keys anchoring him. And then the crowd, already enthusiastic, also begins to float up as they dance.
Rocketman is enrapturing because it knows what makes a rock star so celebrated: for how the music makes us feel – lighter, freer, more alive. Rocketman doesn’t just show us the ecstatic headlines of the reviews that John earned for his Troubadour show (though it does do that, too). That actual airiness between feet and floor is the very jubilation of music, the manifestation of the mystery of the fame of pop performers.
But there’s more good stuff going on here. This is an absolutely electrifying movie in how it deconstructs the typical rags-to-riches, sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n’ roll story. It starts with the downfall and uses the comeback path as its map for exploring how it all came to be. Recovery and redemption mirror rise and fall. The film opens with its damaged hero – a stunningly good Taron Egerton – stalking into rehab in full Elton John regalia. He’s wearing a jumpsuit in tangerine sparkle-flames, devil horns, feathered wings, “electric boots.” And as he tells the tale, in extended flashbacks, about how he came to sink so low as to be taken over by drugs and alcohol even as his career and renown skyrocketed, he strips away the fantasy persona to get back to the Reggie Dwight he was born as.
John’s backstory is not unfamiliar. He was a working-class kid with awful parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) who were utterly intolerant of all his glorious nonconforming weirdness, and unimpressed with the immense musical talent he showed even as a small child. But how Rocketman tells this familiar story is unexpectedly magnificent – the movie isn’t merely about music, with songs thrown in, but it is a musical, the kind of impossible fantasia in which characters break into song at improbable moments in improbable places in order to express their innermost feelings, the ones they cannot talk about.
All the songs here are John’s, of course, mostly ones he wrote with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and they don’t necessarily show up in the order in which they were written in reality. A very young Reggie (Matthew Illesley) breaking into “I Want Love” (a 2001 song) in his almost loveless childhood home sets the stage for Reggie’s tragedy, as he constantly reinvents himself as a way to escape from that cold existence.
“I wish I was someone else,” adult Elton says out loud at one point, but that’s been the subtext of all his ultimately failed solutions to that fundamental quest.
The occasional somberness of Rocketman does not, however, at all impact on its big joyful rowdiness. A crowd-pleasing biopic of one of the biggest pop stars ever, full of ’70s and ’80s glitz and glam and tons of great music? Of course it’s impossible not to compare Rocketmanwith last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody about Freddie Mercury. But rarely when such cinematic confluence happens do we have such a perfect metric for comparison: Director Dexter Fletcher, who took over the reins from Bryan Singer when Rhapsody went off the rails during production, also directs Rocketman.
Rhapsody flies mostly on the power of Queen’s music and the sensational central performance by Rami Malek. Rocketman also has amazing music – as with Rhapsody, the movie is a reminder of how many iconic songs Elton John has given us – and Egerton reaches a new level of craft here. The delicacy with which he contains the singer’s pain even as he is embodying the most outwardly outrageous aspects of the Elton John persona is a masterclass of multilayered acting. And he does his own singing, capturing not only John’s voice but his personality in much the same chills-inducing way that Joaquin Phoenix captured Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.
Rocketman comes together as sheer, exuberant cinematic magic. And you don’t need to be a particular fan of Elton John to have a lot of fun and get cultural food for thought about how we need to nurture artists from a young age from this movie.
ROCKETMAN ( 4 ) • Directed by Dexter Fletcher• Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden • Rated R • 121 min. • At Centuty Marina, Northridge Cinemas, Maya Cinemas, Century Cinemas Del Monte, Lighthouse Cinemas