What is it that we love about Elton John? If “Rocketman” director Dexter Fletcher ever stopped to ask himself that question, the response was apparently so simple as to be almost vulgar: The sunglasses. And the sequins. And the songs, of course. Elton fans will find more of those three elements than they can count in this relentlessly ebullient, razzle-dazzle homage to Reginald Dwight, the fool-lucky London piano prodigy (played here by “Kingsman” star Taron Egerton) who stumbled into a partnership with brilliantly inscrutable lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), sparking the chance for a desperately music-obsessed rock ’n’ roll wannabe to transform into one of the 20th century’s top-selling pop musicians.
So, while it affords Fletcher the chance to envision “Rocketman” as a kind of Baz Luhrmann by way of David LaChapelle disco-ball fantasy — in which Elton and his circle are constantly breaking out into his most recognizable songs — is the bling really the thing that endears him to so many? Wouldn’t it be safe to conclude that Elton’s extravagant persona is somehow overcompensating for the actual person, and that any film about the early years of his career really ought to explore what made Reg tick?
Well, yes and no. The obsequious-minded “Rocketman” arrives while the industry is still processing the bewildering success of last year’s simple-minded Freddie Mercury biopic, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which Fletcher was brought on to salvage after Bryan Singer ankled the picture. And if that hagiographic hogswallop’s commercial and awards-season performance has taught us anything, it’s that audiences aren’t looking for a fresh, unauthorized take on their favorite rock stars; they’d just as soon line up for a massive fiberglass monument commissioned in honor of those legends, so long as it comes with wall-to-wall hits — because seeing music performed generally makes for a great time at the movies. (To wit, Todd Haynes’ ultra-conceptual Bob Dylan portrait “I’m Not There” earned not quite $12 million worldwide, whereas “Bohemian Rhapsody” raked in a staggering $903 million.)
Now, this is Elton we’re talking about, a musical genius whose early period (on which “Rocketman” mostly focuses) reflects a savant-like ability to sponge up inspiration across a wide range of genres — from classical to country, the Beatles to the Band. Meanwhile, his insatiable vinyl-collecting appetite led him down less-trod paths — back to the plough of gospel and folk, rhythm and blues, soul and so on — all of which he synthesized into what he was writing. Elton did with music what Quentin Tarantino has accomplished in the realm of cinema, cherry-picking the best ideas from the billions he’s seen and spinning them into the kind of pastiche that transcends its sources.
That is what we love about Elton John — or so argues a critic who owns every one of his records, and would have preferred to see a portrait that understands what was so special about his talent. Instead, “Rocketman” seems mostly preoccupied with the surface idea of Elton: the outrageous wardrobe, the spectacular showmanship, and his relatively unusual status as an openly gay megastar (something “Bohemian Rhapsody” was lambasted for soft-pedaling in its depiction of Mercury). In each of those categories, a mix of archival materials and Elton’s own memories fuel the film’s sense of history, although nearly every one of costume designer Julian Day’s outfits looks as if the characters is wearing it for the first time — plus, it’s doubtful that Elton donned the same iconic looks featured in photo ops for more personal meetings with his parents.
Here, the first image Fletcher offers of Elton reads as pure camp. We see an agitated Egerton striding down a backlit rehab clinic hallway in red-feathered wings and sequined devil horns: an on-the-nose costume for a man coming to terms with his demons. Bursting into an Alcoholics Anonymous-style meeting, he readily admits his addictions — alcohol, cocaine, sex, weed, prescription drugs, and bulimia — and proceeds to narrate and/or sing his way through flashbacks of his struggles with fame and family.
For a project willed into existence by stage husband David Furnish, and approved by exec producer Elton John himself, this framing device represents a calculated attempt at candor. It’s “Billy Elliot” screenwriter Lee Hall’s way of signaling that this carefully vetted, fully authorized biography wants to be seen as a warts-and-all portrait. Though the film makes jokes about Elton’s sausage fingers and thinning hair — further cues that “Rocketman” isn’t meant to be seen as a vanity project — Egerton effectively plays the pop star as that rarest of movie archetypes: a gay sex symbol. As such, can its much-touted love scene truly be considered gratuitous when an entire community has been so underrepresented in the arena of studio-sanctioned snogging?
Frankly, all white men fortunate enough to commission big-screen versions of their own life stories should be so lucky as to have someone as casually adorable as Egerton play them on screen — not because he’s an especially strong actor but because even with various unflattering wigs and a gap-toothed bridge (infinitely more convincing than the horsey dentures Rami Malek wore in “Bohemian Rhapsody”), Egerton has a hard time looking dumpy. But let’s be honest: Whatever compelled Reginald Dwight to become Elton John was probably a lot more complicated than simply not getting enough hugs from his father (Steven Mackintosh), as the film implies. He was short, unconventionally attractive, and closeted, though screenwriter Lee presents him as a version of Billy Elliot: an artistic kid whose gruffly homophobic dad gave him a complex that no number of arena-filled ovations could ever quite cure.
On Broadway — where touchdown could easily bring us ’round again to find “Rocketman” — most musicals have an “I want” song in which the protagonist tells the audience what he or she is searching for. Here, the Taupin-penned Elton single “I Want Love,” from his 2001 “Songs From the West Coast” album, does the job, as Fletcher divvies the lyrics up among family members (including can’t-be-bothered mother Bryce Dallas Howard and super-supportive granny Gemma Jones). It’s the most recent song featured in the film’s jukebox musical format, where classic hits have been strategically placed to fit various situations in his life — even if, say, it would have made more sense to drop “Crocodile Rock” during his 1972 Royal Variety performance than during his career-making Troubadour debut. Watching the wonderful moment in which his legs float off the stage as the song takes flight is clue enough that Fletcher isn’t playing by any realistic standards.
While the Troubador performance — Elton’s first in Los Angeles — takes a certain surreal artistic license, it does illustrate how the singer’s stage persona was as much inspired by his idols as the music itself was: Ever the showman, Elton stands, knocks over the piano bench, and slams his foot down on the keyboard, à la Jerry Lee Lewis. When Fletcher shows close-ups of the musician’s hands, they aren’t Egerton’s but those of someone with thick, stubby fingers — something that may have once embarrassed Elton but hasn’t stopped him from outplaying every other pop pianist on Earth. The scene also hints at his gift for spontaneously embellishing his own hits.
But “Rocketman” isn’t really about Elton as a musician. Nearly everything it has to say on that subject has been better expressed in the countless rock ’n’ roll biopics that have come before. (Even last Christmas’ career-spanning John Lewis & Partners TV spot outshines “Rocketman” in that department, using “Your Song” to segue between iconic moments from his discography.) “Your Song” features nicely here, illustrating the way Elton could almost instantly find the notes to bring Taupin’s lyrics to life — although this magical scene has the unfortunate effect of making it look too easy. If songwriting has always been second nature (a complete myth that overlooks the duo’s failed first album, or the many songs that flopped en route to Elton John’s smash self-titled follow-up), then that insatiable desire to be loved becomes the film’s facile dramatic core.
That in turn leads to a failed affair with the handsome Brit who would become his manager, John Reid (Richard Madden); a heavily clichéd descent into drinking and drug abuse (slamming screwdrivers for breakfast, swallowing fistfuls of pills at all hours); and the short-lived marriage to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker) that preceded Rocket Man’s rock bottom. In real life, Elton insisted for years that he was bisexual, but unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was criticized for overplaying the hetero half of Mercury’s amorous pursuits, Fletcher’s film treats Elton’s dalliances with women as elaborate denials of his own identity. (Weirdly, in a world where the Kinsey scale is widely accepted, Hollywood still struggles to understand the “B” in the LGBT spectrum.)
While Lee’s script steers Elton’s life from the “Billy Elliot”-like tropes of his daddy issues to the equally trite “Walk the Line”-esque cautionary tale of what happens when fame causes talented musicians to forget who they once were, Fletcher at least has Elton’s music to fall back on. Much of it is remixed with full-blown instrumentation — accompanied by strings, drums, etc. — along the lines of the 1986 live album he did with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Still, it’s Egerton’s voice doing most of the singing here. He’s solid, but he’s no match for Elton’s pipes. In fact, it’s startling to hear Jamie Bell outdo him during a tender reprise of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” late in the film — especially to anyone who’s heard how Taupin actually sounds via his disappointing solo album, “He Who Rides the Tiger.”
Still, in that moment, “Rocketman” makes clear that the dynamic between Dwight and Taupin — which has fueled their nearly half-century collaboration — offers Elton a platonic alternative to the kind of love he’s been seeking. It’s a poignant choice, giving Taupin a chance to sing. And yet, when you consider all the wonderful ways that Elton John’s music has elevated movies over the years — from his original soundtracks for “Friends” and “The Lion King” to the way Cameron Crowe repurposed “Tiny Dancer” in “Almost Famous” — Fletcher’s inventive numbers face stiff competition. Truth be told, Egerton set the bar high playing a cartoon gorilla who covers Elton’s “I’m Still Standing” in 2016’s animated “Sing.” The same song, released nearly a decade before Elton got sober, supplies this film’s “happily ever after” ending, complete with a reenactment of its Cannes-set music video — a fitting finale for “Rocketman’s” glitzy premiere at the French festival.