“Rocketman” begins and ends with Elton John ditching a gig at Madison Square Garden and storming into rehab in a kitschy devil suit.
Although the film is said to be biographical in nature, this never happened.
But that’s beside the point. John putting his career on pause and entering rehab to deal with his many addictions was a turning point in his life. And “Rocketman” needed something more dramatic than John gaping horrified at footage of himself at a funeral (the thing that actually spurred him to enter rehab) to make that point.
“Rocketman” doesn’t even try to get the facts right. Songs John composed are introduced years before he wrote them, circumstances and events in his life are altered for dramatic effect and countless tiny details are fabricated, all in an effort to communicate the spirit of John’s life.
The film practically wears its inaccuracies on its sequined sleeve and dares viewers to complain.
But I didn’t complain. The film is too good for that.
“Rocketman” purports to tell the story of John’s life from early childhood through his sobering up in rehab. It’s a familiar story, not because John lived it and we’ve already heard it, but because it’s the kind of tale many celebrities tell.
Money and fame are nice, they say, but they come with a devastating personal cost.
“Rocketman” makes this abundantly clear. Using John’s songs as narrative anchors, the film depicts his strained relationships with his parents, his rocky road to fame and his struggle with drugs, alcohol and other addictions.
And that’s just the beginning of the singer-songwriter’s woes. Deep, abiding loneliness, unrequited love and a missing sense of self all contribute to the portrait of John director Dexter Fletcher and writer Lee Hall paint.
OK, “Rocketman” doesn’t sound fun, but it is. Rising from the midst of this effectively rendered sorrow are lively, spirited song-and-dance numbers and a superlative performance by actor Taron Egerton (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”) as John.
“Rocketman” is at its most imaginative during its musical sequences. The scene which best illustrates this occurs at The Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. While performing “Crocodile Rock,” John’s feet leave the ground and slowly ascend while his hands remain on the keys. Elevated by the music, the audience joins John in the air, floating upward like weightless astronauts.
It’s a beautiful rendering of the beginning of John’s rise to fame.
“Rocketman” is also an actor’s showcase. Egerton delivers a deft portrayal of John, bringing great energy and skill to song-and-dance numbers like “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” and hitting all the right notes during the film’s many emotional valleys.
John has a larger-than-life persona but is also someone who’s endured much of the heartbreak life offers. Egerton skillfully captures both the flamboyant aspects of John’s personality and his fragile, vulnerable humanity.
The actor is particularly good in the scene in which John tells his mother he’s gay. Egerton’s eyes alone reveal every bit of the conflict and tension that’s tearing John apart as the musician spills out his secret through the phone (which emphasizes the distance between him and his mother). Surely Egerton will receive an Oscar nomination for his work in “Rocketman.”
Actors of equal talent surround him in every scene. Especially impressive are Bryce Dallas Howard (“Jurassic World”) as Sheila Eileen, John’s mother, and Richard Madden (“Bodyguard”) as John Reid, John’s longtime manager. Neither character is shown in a flattering light, but at least they were portrayed by excellent actors.
Finally, “Rocketman” is courageous. Not only does it wallow in rivers of alcohol and mountains of cocaine, it doesn’t shy away from John’s homosexuality. The filmmakers could have gone the route of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which watered down this aspect of Freddie Mercury’s life to secure a PG-13 rating, but they didn’t, and “Rocketman” is a better movie for it.
As John has said when talking about the film, he hasn’t lived a PG-13 life, and he didn’t want someone making a PG-13 movie about him.
Summer is an odd time to release “Rocketman,” given its potential for winning awards. Members of the Academy seem to rarely remember any movie released before September of a given year, and I’d really like to see Egerton recognized for his work on the film.
But oh well; a good movie is a good movie any time of year. “Rocketman” might play fast and loose with the facts, but it captures the spirit of John’s life in a way that’s both tragic and uplifting.
And, whether you’re a fan of his music of not, it’s entertaining. I’d trade that for a dry version of the truth any day.