Updated: Feb 8, 2020
The trick when making a music biopic is not in creating a faithful reenactment of a musician’s life story; it is finding a way to capture the spirit of its subject so the audience can truly understand them. Most movies only have a couple of hours to tell their stories, so some things will be skipped or glossed over out of necessity. A biopic should have more than just information; it is meant to be entertainment, with heart, not a retelling of their Wikipedia entry. Rocketman, a musical about the life of Elton John, takes an interesting approach toward its subject. It is less a traditional look at a famous singer/musician and more about what it feels like to be him. This is a very cinematic take on the biopic.
Rocketman (115 minutes without the end credits) watches Reginald Dwight from his painful childhood through discovery of his talents to his rebirth as eventual superstar Elton John. It hits the regular beats of Daddy issues, failed romance and drug/alcohol addiction mixed with rapid success and the challenges of fame. In this case, the focus is on his relationship with his parents, romance with manager John Reid and friendship with songwriter Bernie Taupin (played sympathetically by Jamie Bell). Yet it does so in a way that is at least a little different. For one thing, his songs are not only performed during concerts or recordings. They come spontaneously out of dramatic moments, commenting on the action like in a Broadway musical. Most of the songs are well placed (and well-staged) to enhance the narrative.
A key in these movies working is that the lead actor cannot just try to mimic the person they are playing. They have to inhabit them, as opposed to going for a straight impersonation. Taron Egerton gives the best performance of his career thus far as Elton John. Egerton, known for starring in the Kingsman series, presents a protagonist who is kind, sensitive and deeply wounded. He transforms himself into a showman who self-medicates to feel less pain. Through it all, Egerton lets viewers sense Reginald Dwight inside Elton John. He really goes for it, showing a guy who is constantly on because he thinks that is who he has to be so he can be who he wants to be. It is difficult to portray someone your audience will be very familiar with, but he makes John come off as a real person, instead of a product of the biopic formula.
To be fair, Rocketman, despite its energetic style, does follow that formula. However, something becomes a formula for a reason; when done well, it works. The filmmakers were able to fit the larger-than-life persona of Elton John onto the normal framework of the genre. It disguises the predictability with its flights of fancy and well timed musical numbers. Although it will definitely not seem out of place on the shelf next to more traditional celebrity biopics, it sets itself apart by including elements unique to this particular guy.
Any movie centered on a popular musician needs to bring the music and persona their fans enjoy, along with some insight into where it all came from. Rocketman consistently delivers on the first two and has enough of the last one to appear to know what it is talking about. While I would not quite call it “warts and all,” this is very much the R-rated telling his story deserves. If I want to learn detailed information, I will check out his upcoming autobiography. In the meantime, his movie is a lot of fun.
3¾ out of 5
Taron Egerton as Elton John
Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin
Richard Madden as John Reid
Bryce Dallas Howard as Sheila Eileen
Steven Mackintosh as Stanley
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Screenplay by Lee Hall