Elton John is one of those music artists whose songs you just like, even if you’re not big on his genre or era. While watching Dexter Fletcher’s musical biopic, “Rocketman,” which is based on Elton’s life, I found myself singing (or rather lip-syncing) along to every song, even though I’ve never considered myself a huge fan.
Fletcher’s film is the first classic rock-era biopic to hit the big screen since last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” While “Rhapsody” was a big hit with audiences and award voters, critics didn’t hold back from digging at the film with phrases like “whitewashing,” “sugar coating,” and “cheesy.” Ironically, Fletcher was brought on board for the Queen film for the last two weeks of shooting before jumping on board for “Rocketman.” To dodge the humorous comparisons “Rhapsody” got to the music parody “Walk Hard” (2007), Fletcher and company were smart enough to make Elton’s origin story a full-fledged musical fantasy.
As part of the rock ‘n’ roll journey, we see the first half of Elton John’s life through his own extravagant memories while he’s recovering in rehab. The singer and pianist is portrayed by English actor Taron Egerton, who successfully pulls off double duty with acting and singing. Because of his colorful persona, Elton tells a very tall tale-ish account of his backstory, including his parents’ divorce, realizing he’s gay, and succumbing to addiction. The narrative almost immediately lets us know that the movie is going to fudge the timeline a bit, like all biopics ultimately do, for whatever reason. We get 10-year-old Elton (Matthew Illesley) singing “I Want Love” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” with his family and neighbors, even though the songs were co-written with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. I guess this is supposed to help fans adjust to the fact that later in the film, “Crocodile Rock” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” are performed half a decade before they were actually written.
Jamie Bell plays Taupin, Elton’s songwriting partner and oldest friend, and Richard Madden is Elton’s lover-turned-career-manager John Reid. Bryce Dallas Howard is Elton’s cold-hearted mother Sheila Eileen. As a casual fan, “Rocketman” is a lot of fun, especially in a theater environment. The musical numbers are artistically impressive and so are the performances. Egerton proves that he’s come a long way since the “Kingsman” action flicks and is a genuine talent. His performance, whether musically or dramatically, is the best part of the feature. Howard also reminds us that she’s a pretty good actress outside of the goofy Jurassic World franchise. But, of course, those who have been following Elton’s career for years will probably have trouble accepting the high liberties taken with the script.
For full enjoyment, it’s best to go into “Rocketman” the same way one would with “All That Jazz” (1979) or “Funny Girl” (1968). Both use real celebrity lives that are mildly rewritten for the sake of making entertaining musicals – not traditional, straight-forward biopics. Otherwise you’re just going to frustrate yourself as much as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Doors” (1991), “Daydream Believers,” (2000) or “The Greatest Showman” (2017) already did.
Not every music biopic can be as great as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980) or “Walk the Line” (2005), but at least we get some quality escapism for two hours through Elton.