(Fletcher, 2019)

Following a triumphant debut at Cannes earlier this month, many expected Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman to connect with mainstream audiences, critics, and perhaps even Oscar voters. Marketed as a “true fantasy,” Rocketman leans into the fantastical with electrifying success — featuring the glamour, humor, and imagination any movie about Elton John should have. Most importantly, however, is that it manages to do all this without compromising the weight of John’s story, emotions and demons. It’s far from the first film to put a troubled artist on screen, but thanks to Fletcher’s unique sensibilities and Taron Egerton’s dynamite performance, Rocketman hits all the right notes.

Unlike your average movie musical, Rocketman is a film that fully embraces the music that birthed it. The delivery of the narrative is unapologetic, creatively ambitious, and an actual musical — not just a playlist of songs to play over concert reenactment montages. The musical numbers feature elaborate costumes, choreography, and a surprising amount of narrative weight. The film’s script, penned by Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot fame), adeptly fuses John’s music and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics into the narrative, using them as a guiding force for the film’s emotional through line. As John begins to give up his modest lifestyle and succumb to the vices of the rich and famous, he jovially sings, “When I look back, boy, I must have been green / Bopping in the country, fishing in a stream / Looking for an answer, trying to find a sign / Until I saw your city lights, honey, I was blind” (“Honky Cat”). Towards the end of the film, a drunk and jaded Elton John sits across from Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who laments his friend’s  “When are you going to come down? / When are you going to land?” (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”).

Though some may be quick to write off Rocketman as a by-the-numbers biopic (troubled protagonist with a substance abuse problem, jam-packed soundtrack of hits, tired celebrity imitations, etc.), those who watch the film should recognize it as a more thoughtful and creative product. That’s not to say that the movie isn’t cheesy or predictable in some moments — it certainly is — but those moments actually work because they are grounded in the emotional arc of John’s character, not just the history of “what really happened.” Elton John’s campy and sarcastic personality allows for less stringent storytelling, so when he starts singing with his younger self in the middle of a therapy session, it’s not just cheesy — it’s Elton.

So much of Rocketman’s success is owed to the magnetic, awards-worthy performance of star Taron Egerton. The 29-year-old Welsh actor, who is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Eggsy in the Kingsman franchise, shines as both actor and singer. He doesn’t quite look or sound like Elton in every frame, but that ends up working in his favor. His portrayal is not an impersonation, but a personalization, similar to Ben Dickey’s brilliant turn as country songwriter Blaze Foley in last year’s Blaze. Though mimicry is often praised for its “accuracy,” it’s a technique that leads to stale and uninspired performances. In Rocketman, there is very little focus placed on the temporal and factual accuracy of John’s story. It’s clear from the opening scene that this film cares more about who Elton John is, not where he was or what he was doing at any particular time. The film prioritizes John’s magnificent spirit and raw emotional intensity over everything else, and that’s exactly what Egerton carries through. Plus, he’s a really terrific singer in his own right.

It’s hard to discuss Rocketman without comparing it to last year’s Oscar-winning money machine, Bohemian Rhapsody. To start, both films are musical biopics of iconic British rockers whose sexuality and drug abuse play an important role in the plot. The two films also share an important character, the sleazy and manipulative manager John Reid (played by Game of Thrones alums Richard Madden in Rocketman and Aiden Gillen in Bohemian Rhapsody). Dexter Fletcher was originally attached to direct Bohemian Rhapsody but left the project due to creative differences with the producers. Though not much is known about the conflict, Fletcher’s work on Rocketman could suggest that he was interested in a less conventional approach. Even so, Fletcher was eventually rehired in December 2017 to replace Bryan Singer following his now-infamous dismissal from the project. Fletcher himself estimates that he is responsible for directing 1/3 of Bohemian Rhapsody.

Even without Fletcher’s connection to both projects, Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody are tied together — members of the same cultural moment, like A Bug’s Life and Antz were in 1998, or even this year’s dueling documentaries Fyre and Fyre Fraud. For many, Rocketman may appear to be a retread of Bohemian Rhapsody, perhaps only due to the order in which they were released. But Rocketman is its own, unique vision, and Fletcher’s contributions to Bohemian Rhapsody were in service of someone else’s. Despite praise from the Academy and the general movie-going public, Bohemian Rhapsody has caught flack from critics for being straight-washed, unimaginative, and factually manipulative. Rocketman is none of the above.

Each time I think about Rocketman, I’m convinced I have a new favorite part. First it was the most exciting and theatrical musical number “Saturday’s Night Alright For Fighting,” which shows Elton John coming of age and leading a massive dance ensemble in the middle of a neon-lit carnival. Then it was the soft and weighty ballad “Your Song,” which catches Elton and Bernie composing the world’s best love song at the breakfast table. Then it wasn’t even a musical number at all, instead a moment — when Elton stares into a mirror backstage, slipping his face in and out of ecstatic expressions, perhaps testing if he still had the ability to be himself. For the average moviegoer or the Elton John fan, Rocketman can function as a fun and exciting popcorn musical, but for those who like to look deeper and notice the finer things, it can do that too. ★★★★½

Figueroa & Merkle