Taron Egerton Shoots for the Stars as Elton John in Gloriously Gaga Musical Biopic
Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell & Richard Madden
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Elton John has never been an ordinary singing star—so why should he have an ordinary movie?
Rocketman, director Dexter Fletcher’s exuberantly unconventional musical fantasia about Sir Elton’s flamboyant rise to superstardom, is framed by the world-famous piano-pounder’s deep-rooted issues that kept him in a quagmire of loneliness and addiction even as his career lifted him to spectacular levels of fame, fortune and excess.
It’s aptly titled. It burns bright, flies high and goes far in telling the story of the young British musical prodigy born Reginald Dwight, who later changed his name to Elton John and became a pop-rock sensation in the 1970s.
Rocketman is a biopic, in that sense, but it’s also a splashy, spangly musical that uses Elton John’s greatest hits (and a few deep cuts) for elaborate, choreographed production pieces in which characters break into solos, duets and choral numbers and take the movie to some truly unexpected places—like underwater, into Elton’s psyche and high into the sky.
And if you thought Rami Malik was da bomb in Bohemian Rhapsody, wait until you see—and hear—Taron Egerton in Rocketman.
Malik won an Oscar for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury, the outré front man for the British rock band Queen. But Malik lip-synched all the songs. Egerton does all his own singing in Rocketman, and he pours his heart and soul into all of them.
The British actor—best known for playing a young spy in the Kingsman franchise, and Robin Hood in last year’s big-screen return to Sherwood Forest—puts a fake gap between his front teeth and dons a parade of outrageous outfits (and ornately decorated glasses!) to cover more than a decade in the life of the pop star. He may not sound exactly, precisely like Elton John, but man, he can sing—and sing he does, putting his passionate stamp on nearly two dozen easily recognizable tunes, including “The Bitch is Back,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Honky Cat,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets” and, of course, “Rocket Man.”
If Malik deserved an Oscar for Rhapsody, Egerton should get two for Rocketman. Director Fletcher, who worked previously with Egerton on the ski-jumping true-story drama Eddie the Eagle, is earning his bona fides as a musical-movie magic man; although he received no credit, he was called in to rescue Bohemian Rhapsody when the original director, Bryan Singer, was canned by the studio as the film neared completion.
That’s Bryce Dallas Howard with a plump Cockney accent in the thankless role of young Reggie’s inattentive harpy mother, Sheila, who seems indifferent to his budding talents. His emotionally cold dad (Steven Mackintosh) isn’t supportive either, telling the aspiring piano player to keep his prancing, practicing fingers off the kitchen table and to stay away from his prized album collection.
It’s no wonder Elton grows up with mummy and daddy issues, along with other, additional baggage he acquires in his zoom to the top of the pops. The movie—officially sanctioned by John, one of the executive producers—doesn’t shy away from depictions of his homosexuality and drug use. It opens with his admission to a support group that he’s an alcoholic, a sex addict, a cocaine addict, a bulimic—and a shopaholic.
And that’s just for starters as the film begins to peel away his emotional layers in flashbacks and kaleidoscopic musical moments, and we’re taken on a journey where the past continually overlaps with the present.
Along the way, we meet Elton’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, who got his acting start 19 years ago as the young star of Billy Elliot), the lyricist who’d go on to become the wordsmith collaborator to Elton’s melody-making on more than 30 albums. We also meet the promiscuously gay manager John Reid (Richard Madden, who played Robb Stark on Game of Thrones), who takes advantage of Elton in more ways than one. Elton records a hit duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” with Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon) and has a brief, unhappy marriage with Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker), a recording engineer who props him up with some encouraging words during a particularly difficult time.
That doesn’t mean, as Elton finds out, that they were meant to be together.
The film’s musical sequences are soaring flights of imagination that drive the story—and sometimes bring the familiar songs to life with new, deeper levels of color and emotional intensity. Diehard fans may quibble-quabble about dates and facts, but why not just enjoy the sheer spectacle of watching the time warp of adolescent Elton (Kit Connor) morph into young-adult Elton in “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” all in one sprawling, song-tastic musical number in which a pub rumble becomes a swaggering carnival?
And maybe Taupin didn’t intend the lyrics to “Your Song,” Elton’s huge 1970 breakthrough single, as an ode to their unbreakable collaborative bond—or Elton’s unrequited feelings toward him. But in one of the movie’s most touching moments, when we watch that song come to life as Elton creates the notes to go with Taupin’s words on the piano, with Bernie looking on, it becomes sweet movie magic.
Likewise, the song “Rocket Man” doesn’t really have anything to do with Elton taking an unsuccessful suicide dive to the bottom of his swimming pool, seeing a childhood version of himself at a miniature piano on the bottom, and reflecting on the lyric, “I miss the Earth so much…” But in the movie, it totally works.
Everything in Rocketman works, in fact. It’s a glittery goblet of tribute to a musical icon, a rollicking twist on rock biopics, and a stupendously inventive musical with a star-making performance by Egerton, who fills it with pitch-perfect performances of classic Elton John songs.
And as the closing scene—a jaunty, faithfully retro-tinged recreation of the video for Elton’s 1983 No. 1 hit “I’m Still Standing”—reminds us, Elton John is indeed still standing, a “true survivor.” Yes, he is.
There aren’t many rock stars like Elton John still standing and still walking the planet, there aren’t many movies like this gloriously gaga rock musical, and there haven’t been many performances as full of sing-out, shoot-for-the-stars gusto as the one Taron Egerton gives in Rocketman.
How long before another one—of any of those—comes along?
Well…I think it’s gonna be a long, long time.
In theaters May 31, 2019