The much-anticipated Elton John biopic Rocketman opens with a wallop. At first, we see the over-the-top protagonist marching toward the lens with abandon. He's decked out in a pumpkin-orange, bedazzled jumpsuit cut down to there, matching high-heeled boots jacked up to there, and feathered headgear that is nearly airborne. Is this rock superstar heading to the stage of Wembley Arena? Madison Square Garden? Dodger Stadium? No—he's thundering full-bore toward group therapy.
"Hello. I'm Elton Hercules John," he says. "I'm a cocaine addict, sex addict, bulimic, shopaholic, and I have problems with weed and anger management."
Nearly all of what he says is true. In fact, he's Reggie Dwight, the working class kid/prodigy who turned the music world inside out, conquered Broadway and Hollywood, and made a right bloody mess of his life and those around him before emerging as pop culture's most formidable survivor.
"How long is this going to take?" Elton/Reggie asks the group therapy session.
Well, nearly all of Elton John's 70-plus years on this planet are squeezed into Rocketman's two hour run time. But I promise you, you will not find a more entertaining and emotional two hours this year. There may be a few movies that approach greatness in 2019, but right now, I can't imagine a better one. And let's just lock down a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for its star, Taron Egerton, right now, shall we? He erupts off the screen, and the fact that it's his voice, and not a lip-synch, that we're hearing is astonishing. Egerton's covers of the Elton John songbook should burn up the planet's radio waves this summer.
True, Rocketman's script is a wee bit flabby in some stretches of dialogue between songs; but that's mostly because we're so anxious to hear another classic from Elton John's bottomless playlist. And my, oh my, when the music swells, you'll be transported to whatever moment in life you first heard "Your Song," "Tiny Dancer," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Crocodile Rock," "Bennie and the Jets," "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," "The Bitch is Back," "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" and more than a dozen others.
Don't confuse Rocketman with other recent musical biopics that simply decorate a musicians life with his or her music, in chronological order. Executive produced by Elton John himself, Rocketman stitches its songs into its scenes, not to be historically accurate with the time and place where the song was first penned, but instead to enhance a each spot's emotional punch. As a result, Rocketman feels much more theatrical, and it may be the best Broadway show of the season that isn't anywhere near New York City. The film has oodles more stage presence than most Broadway productions, and given Elton John's success on Broadway (The Lion King, Billy Elliot, Aida), expect to see Rocketman on the London or New York stage sometime soon. It shouldn't come as a shock that conventional moviemaking was never going to work for the telling of Elton John's life story. Simply put, anything conventional couldn't, and shouldn't, contain the man.
There are two particularly magnificent scenes that elevate Rocketman, one of them quite literally. The first, steeped in reality, comes when we see a young Reggie (Elton) sitting down to a rickety piano in his mum's living room, plinking out a tune that would become his first, and perhaps greatest, hit, "Your Song." The scene triple-dog dares you not to break out in a smile as wide as the keyboard. The second unforgettable moment occurs when now-Elton travels to America for the first time to perform at the legendary Troubadour club in Los Angeles. Something magical happens during his groundbreaking performance (no spoilers here) that is unlike anything you've seen on film before. It's easily the best depiction I've seen of that indescribable moment when you hear a song for the first time but you feel you've known it your whole life.
Ultimately, Rocketman is a love story... or at least a story about love, or the lack of it. There's the emotional distance of Reggie/Elton's parents (Steven Mackintosh as dad and the wonderful Bryce Dallas Howard as mum); and then there's the mercurial-but-toxic relationship between Elton and his manager John Reid (played with delicious malice by Richard Madden). But the real love of Elton's life is Bernie Taupin, who would become his lifelong songwriting partner. In Rocketman, Taupin is embodied by Jamie Bell. (Yes, that's the same Jamie Bell who played Billy Elliot two decades ago—it's as if he were ordained to co-star in an Elton John biopic.)
Ultimately, this is Egerton's film, beginning to end. This same young man who smirked his way through the Kingsman franchise (and last year's perfectly horrible Robin Hood rehash) has truly arrived, playing Elton with the tempestuousness, respect and outrageousness that the role demands. To that end, Rocketman is gloriously off the charts.