Biopics about subjects who are still very much alive are always a tricky proposition. The creatives involved want to tell a story that’s as true as possible, but at the same time don’t wish to risk offending the subject. We saw this in action with 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, an entertaining film that nonetheless heavily sanitised the historical details of the surviving members of N.W.A. Then again, even when the subject is deceased, as in the case of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, the tendency to omit the more complicated details persists; in the case of that film Freddie Mercury’s drug use and prolific sexual adventures. All of that brings us to Rocketman, a bright and intense biopic about Elton John and a film that seeks to straddle the line between warts and all truth and misty-eyed hagiography.
Rocketman opens with Elton John (Taron Egerton) dressed in a stunning devil costume, crashing an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and spilling his life’s story. This is used as a framing device, giving writer Lee Hall license to skip back and forth through time, to better understand how a chubby little boy named Reginald Kenneth Dwight became the incandescent superstar we all know him as today. The action plays out as a sort of musical fantasy rather than a straight drama, with various characters breaking into song or choreographed dance numbers to underline an emotional beat or emphasise a specific moment in time. It works, for the most part, with plenty of joyous singalong sequences including a stunning scene where Elton makes his American debut at the iconic Troubadour club in Los Angeles.
Performance wise, Edgerton nails not only Elton John’s physicality but even has a crack at singing a surprising number of the songs himself and doing so really rather well. His turn isn’t quite as groundbreaking as Rami Malek’s from Bohemian Rhapsody, but in a film that spends much of its runtime questioning who Elton really is, that seems oddly appropriate. Jamie Bell is also excellent as Elton’s creative partner Bernie Taupin, who often seems to be the rock idol’s only true friend. See, for all the glitz and glamour, Elton has had a frequently sad life. His parents Sheila and Stanley (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) were manipulative and unavailable respectively, his lover/manager John Reid (Richard Madden) was a dead-eyed sociopath and despite all the adoring fans screaming his name, the man was unable to love himself.
Director Dexter Fletcher, who himself was brought onto Bohemian Rhapsody after credited director Bryan Singer went walkabout about two thirds of the way into production, crafts an imaginative and engaging story here. Although much less grim in its delivery, it has shades of Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, and the puckish, playful moments set the biopic apart from its safer genre mates. Things do drift a little towards the mawkish and sentimental by the end of the film, but generally speaking it feels earned.
Ultimately, Rocketman is a colourful, exciting tribute to a colourful, exciting musician, brimming with solid performances, imaginative direction and great music. And while it certainly glosses over some aspects of the man’s life, it contains an emotional truth that will likely resonate with you for a long, long time.