Most biopics tend to follow the same format no matter the person or people being profiled. Filmmakers, focusing on either a small or large chunk of the person’s life, go chronologically through that person’s accomplishments to try to demonstrate his or her full depth. This is especially true with music biopics, as the natural rise and fall of singers/bands is an easy way to build drama.
Rocketman, which tells the story of singer Elton John (Taron Egerton), upends those expectations from minute one. The film does move chronologically in a way, but it’s structured so that it never feels like director Dexter Fletcher and writer Lee Hall are just ticking boxes off a checklist. Using a fictional Alcoholics Anonymous meeting which John is attending, the film has him tell the story of his own life, dropping in on key moments over the course of at least 40 years.
More importantly, the filmmakers infuse the film with John’s songs from the beginning, making the movie into more of a musical than merely a film with John’s music in it. Different songs are used to emphasize certain moments of John’s life, with multiple characters, including John’s mom (Bryce Dallas Howard), father (Steven Mackintosh), songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and manager John Reid (Richard Madden), singing along.
This method also helps to dispel any fears about Egerton’s voice not living up to John’s iconic sound. By the time he sings for the first time, the film has already established that anyone could sing, so it doesn’t really matter whether Egerton sounds like John or not. That said, he does his level best to emulate John, and his mellifluous voice proves to be a boon for the film.
Befitting the musical feel of the film, fantasy elements are layered upon more realistic scenes throughout the film. Dance sequences, special effects, and more crop up to enhance both happy and sad moments of John’s life, to the point that you’re never sure what Fletcher and his team will do next.
One of the best moments comes during John’s first performance at The Troubadour in Los Angeles when he sings “Crocodile Rock.” It’s not something to be taken literally — John played The Troubadour for the first time in 1970, while “Crocodile Rock” didn’t come out until 1973 — but the way the film shows John’s elation in connecting with an audience is about as magical a moment as could be captured on film.
Not everything works as well as that, though. No matter the particulars of John’s life, the film relies a bit too much on the stereotypical booze and drugs life of a rock star. It also doesn’t have any real insights on the hardships of John’s life, including his difficult relationship with his parents or living life as a gay man at a time when he wasn’t free to live openly.
Egerton never fully disappears into the role of John, but he’s fantastic throughout, fully living up to the singer’s outsized personality onstage and his somewhat tortured life offstage. Bell makes the most of his limited time onscreen, showing what a true friend and partner Taupin has been for John. Howard was a curious choice to play John’s mother, as her over-the-top accent is distracting whenever she makes an appearance.
Rocketman doesn’t follow the conventions of most music biopics, and it’s all the better for it. Despite containing mostly snippets of John’s biggest hits, it’s a full-on celebration of the singer’s life and the impact he’s had on music lovers around the world. You can also probably start counting the days until the film is adapted into an actual Broadway musical.