You have a right to be nervous about Rocketman. The Elton John biopic arrives at a time in which critical stock in rockstar biopics has never been lower. Of course, “critical” is the operative word here, as Bohemian Rhapsody — last year’s Oscar-winning Queen drama starring Rami Malek and partially directed by alleged sexual predator Bryan Singer — has since become the highest-grossing musical biopic worldwide in history. Its $903.2 million take more than quadrupled the $201.6 million tally for previous record-holder Straight Outta Compton.
Straight Outta Compton was a simple, straightforward, and relatively toothless film that nonetheless boosted the career of the talented O’Shea Jackson (who played his real-life father Ice Cube), but Bohemian Rhapsody made it look like Lawrence Of Arabia by comparison. From Malek’s god-awful big-toothed styling and fake British accent to the type of basic technological filmmaking incompetence that paradoxically became its own meme and brought home the Oscar for Best Film Editing. After Singer was booted off Bohemian Rhapsody’s set a few months into shooting for [gestures in the general direction of Bryan Singer and pretty much everything about him], British actor and director Dexter Fletcher handled clean-up and still made an absolute mess of the results.
But, again, Bohemian Rhapsody was a massive hit regardless of quality, and its financial success combined with the way the grinning rich idiots in the audience at the Oscars ate up this year’s show-opening Queen performance with Adam Lambert means that we’ll doubtlessly be awash in biopics attempting to canonize rock history for years to come. Even though it was in the works for years before Bohemian Rhapsody’s release, we already got a taste of how bad it could get with The Dirt, a tasteless and dull adaptation of Mötley Crüe’s infamous oral history from Jeff Tremaine of Jackass fame; time will only tell how in-the-works biopics focusing on David Bowie, Celine Dion, and Aretha Franklin will fare.
In the meantime, there’s Rocketman, directed by — wait for it — Fletcher, making for his unofficial follow-up to Bohemian Rhapsody. (“Unofficial” primarily because, under Directors Guild Of America rules, only one person can be credited as director, and for Bohemian Rhapsody it was Singer.) But don’t mistake Fletcher’s involvement as a cause for alarm: Rocketman is much, much better than Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s far from a gritty, warts-and-all account — although there’s plenty of the dark-side-of-fame stuff present and accounted for — and in terms of overall quality, it’s only slightly more deserving of awards-show recognition than the quadruple-Oscar winning Bohemian Rhapsody. But it is fun and surprisingly tender, easily clearing the low bar set by its predecessor with a little bit of room to spare.
Granted, the film — effectively a chronicle of John’s life ranging from his complicated, absentee-father childhood upbringing and his ascent to superstardom through his eventual embrace of sobriety — starts off a little shakily. After a series of swirling, Marvel Cinematic Universe-esque production-company logos set to an orchestral arrangement of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the film’s subject (Taron Egerton) kicks open literal doors. Decked to the nines in the type of outlandish costuming favored by John, he takes a seat in an otherwise drab Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. After he lists the myriad complications and mental illnesses that have led him here (including a variety of addictions and bulimia, the latter of which John revealed IRL that he’d suffered from in a 2002 interview), the film regularly returns to this tableau with the on-screen John dismantling his costume piece by piece until he’s nearly naked, in a bathrobe, completely unadorned.
The symbolism is, to say the least, a bit heavy-handed, and “heavy-handed” is the name of the game throughout Rocketman — which is exactly why the film works at all. It’s less a straight-ahead biopic and more an old-fashioned movie musical, with fantastical set pieces, massive sing-alongs of John classics, and key moments of character development matched up to the subject’s lyrics.
A pint-sized John bawdily belts “The Bitch Is Back” with the rest of his suburban hamlet backing him up; the “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” set piece, with flashy cuts and tons of heavily staged energy, is the film’s eye-catching highlight and effortlessly enjoyable. Setting the question of historical accuracy aside for a moment, Rocketman is best taken as a spiritual kin to last year’s corny, lovely Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again: a jukebox musical that embarrassingly wears its heart on its sleeve and dares you not to be the least bit charmed as a result.
And Egerton’s performance goes a long way towards bringing the charm. If the crowd-pleasing nature of Rocketman ends up pleasing a lot of crowds, the film could represent a star-making moment for him. He’s already had a decent career thus far, oozing a certain rakishness in the juvenile and underappreciated Kingsman franchise; and his second time in the saddle with Fletcher after the 2016 sports biopic EddieThe Eagle feels comfortable in a way that allows him to stretch his dramatic legs in a way that the fratty action-comedy confines of Kingsman didn’t previously allow.
Even as the film takes the expected and slightly overdone dark-night-of-the-soul turn in its third act, it’s Egerton’s chemistry with Jamie Bell, who portrays John’s lifelong songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, that continues to shine. The way the pair’s working and personal relationship is depicted is touching and sincere, undoubtedly the film’s emotional nexus. Elsewhere, the former expertly handles John’s filmic journey in struggling with sexuality, self-acceptance, love, neglect, abuse, addiction, and recovery with a sensitivity that allows him to disappear into the character he’s playing. Obviously, no one’s going to mistake Egerton for the character’s inimitable and larger-than-life counterpart, but his singing throughout the film is commendable and more often than not structurally sound, an accomplishment that stands in opposition to Malek’s lip-synched Bohemian Rhapsody performance.
Overall, his turn as John is a great performance in a film that’s just good enough to warrant seeing, whether you’re a diehard John fan or someone who’s simply looking to see a bunch of people float in the air while listening to “Crocodile Rock.” You might not necessarily find yourself floating in turn, but Rocketman nonetheless elicits some hope for the oncoming music biopic onslaught. It’s an exercise in skating total embarrassment by way of knowing when and how to be just embarrassing enough.
Rocketman hits theaters 5/31.