“Rocketman,” the Elton John story, is a musical fantasy that never quite breaks free from the rock-biopic formula but nonetheless delivers some satisfying pizzazz and joy.
Dexter Fletcher, who directed a small portion of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” presents Elton John’s journey as a greatest-hits salute set mostly in the 1970s. Screenwriter Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) combines fact with considerable dramatic license, especially chronology-wise. Taron Egerton, who starred in Fletcher’s “Eddie the Eagle,” plays Elton, whom we first meet at a rehab facility, the movie’s framing device, in 1990.
Wearing an outrageous red getup, the rock superstar takes his seat in a 12-step support-group circle and cites his addictions: alcohol, cocaine, sex, shopping …
He then shares his story, which unfolds in narrative scenes and fantastical musical numbers.
In a sequence featuring the song “The Bitch Is Back,” the adult Elton encounters his boyhood self — a piano prodigy named Reggie Dwight — at his childhood home in 1950s Middlesex. We also meet his selfish mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and coldhearted father (Steven Mackintosh).
In the late 1960s, Reggie, now called Elton, begins writing songs with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell).
Bernie, who is straight, doesn’t mind that Elton is gay, and the two become friends as well as creative partners.
In 1970, “Your Song” becomes a hit, and 23-year-old Elton appears at Los Angeles’ famed Troubadour. In a delightfully fanciful scene, he wows the crowd, levitating.
At a party, Elton meets the seductive John Reid (Richard Madden), who will become his lover, manager and heartbreaker.
Unable to handle his fame, Elton develops addictions, behaves abominably, alienates Bernie and attempts suicide.
Basically, this is a conventionally structured biopic. The musical numbers add novelty but don’t break the mold, and they exist at the expense of more satisfying, character-focused material.
The most moving relationship, Elton’s bond with Bernie — a platonic love story, really — is shortchanged.
Yet you can’t ignore the exuberance Fletcher and company deliver. Egerton may not get inside Elton John’s psyche or convey its darker shades, but he’s a force of enthusiasm. Crucially, he also conveys vulnerability beneath the colorful persona. Doing his own singing, he fares decently.
The film also deserves applause for refusing to downplay its protagonist’s homosexuality.
The musical numbers, while overabundant and hardly profound, are impressively staged and designed. A pub brawl leads to a carnival where young Reggie matures into adult Elton in one memorable sequence, set to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”
The most exciting musical moment, though, even besting the levitating, is the simplest: Elton sitting at the piano and composing music for Bernie’s lyrics to “Your Song.” When Bernie, shaving in the bathroom, hears what’s happening, he stops, startled. He realizes, as do we, that something amazing is transpiring.
This bond that, onscreen, feels so real is reflected in actual life: Elton John and Bernie Taupin, 50 years later, are still friends and collaborators.
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard
Written by: Lee Hall
Directed by: Dexter Fletcher
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute