I hated Bohemian Rhapsody. There, I said. I know it has millions of fans and won major awards. I don’t care. I loathed Bryan Singer/Dexter Fletcher’s Frankenstein’s monster of a biopic for its bumbling structure, its naked compromises to the surviving Queen members’ egos, and for everything it did to Freddie Mercury. That movie took one the greatest queer icons of modern music and made him a maudlin cautionary tale that veered uncomfortably into homophobic self-loathing. And rather than embracing the fantasy of Queen’s music, it’s mostly used as a cheat to stir emotions its sloppy script couldn’t dare. Sure, the title montage was cool, but every other music number lacked the kind of cinematic dazzle that Mercury deserved. The finale concert was a dedicated re-enactment down to its cinematography and edit. But there was no imagination there. Thankfully, that’s not the case for Fletcher’s follow-up, Rocketman. The biopic about gay rock icon Elton John is proudly queer, packed with spectacle, and—though streaked with trauma and tragedy—radiant with joy.
Rocketman will not play coy. From its first moments, it bursts with color, attitude, and a cheeky sense of humor. Enter Taron Egerton as Elton John, his body cinched into a radioactive-orange jumpsuit, covered in a jeweled flame print, topped with horns, set off by massive red-feathered wings, that arch high over him as he stomps down an anonymous hallway in platform boots. And of course, there’s his eccentric glasses, this pair heart-shaped with pink lenses. You might think in this extravagant getup that Elton is on his way to the stage for a sold-out stadium show. Instead, he barges into a somber room where a circle of chairs holds solemn-faced strangers. It’s an AA meeting. With that famous gap-toothed grin, the rock star confesses “I’m Elton Hercules John; and I’m an alcoholic, cocaine addict, sex addict, bulimic, shopaholic…” and the list goes on, and off we go.
This turning point, where Elton first sought help for his addictions, becomes the device that allows the script to selectively skip through his life, from the unhappy boyhood as Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley), to his early days as a piano-man finding his footing, to the rise and fall of Elton John. Slowly stripping away his glamorous costume by one horn and rack of wings at a time, Elton recounts to us stories of his sniping mother (a campy Bryce Dallas Howard), his cold father, and his discovery of the talent that would change his life. But rather than crassly cutting to stern flashbacks, the grown Elton will usher us into his past by chasing the younger version of himself out of this AA circle and into a cul-de-sac where pretty mums in 1950s circle-skirts dance to “The Bitch is Back.” Little Reggie is set apart visually by a color correct that gives him a greater vibrancy than the revelers around him. So—swiftly—Fletcher establishes that even before he was Elton John, Reggie was something special. Later, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” will swing us through a boyhood gig at a dive bar, then into the streets, picking up with a teen Reggie (Egerton steps in here), who is dodging drunks and dancing with carnival-goers.
There is an astonishing number of Elton’s hit songs packed into the two-hour runtime. And while not all of them will get the full musical number treatment, Egerton gives each his all. Rather than lipsyncing to the real-life artist’s tracks (like Rami Malek did for Bohemian Rhapsody), Egerton brings his voice to Elton John. His is not a dead ringer imitation, yet he captures the electricity and showmanship of the living legend. This is crucial, because Rocketman doesn’t treat the music that Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin created as a backdrop to the story. Instead, it makes the music its life’s blood. It drives the pace. It tells the story. And most crucially, it gives voice to the man behind the showman.
With jaunty upbeat jams, Egerton brings an explosive joy to his performance that makes it less surreal and more sure-yeah when the in-movie audience literally levitates while dancing to “Crocodile Rock.” With a radiant relish, Egerton struts in an array of deliciously outrageous and memorable Elton John costumes, dedicatedly recreated by costume designer Julian Day. And he rocks every one. When the songs turn tender, we see a softer and sometimes more volatile side of Elton. Egerton sings “Tiny Dancer” at a house party, where amid the throngs of fans and friends, he feels alone. A tension throbs in Elton’s life. He is loved for the persona he brings to stage but feels unknown and unloved in his personal life. Egerton weaves this raw ache throughout the film, in tantrums, songs, and one moment so simple but strong it broke my heart, even in the trailer.
Elton John is flanked by employees who are tasked with making him picture-perfect as he takes to the stage at his iconic Dodgers’ Stadium concert. For the occasion, he’s wearing a baseball uniform, but naturally, it’s got an Elton twist. It’s head to toe studded in sequins. Under the stage lights, he will glitter brighter than the stars in the night’s sky above. But he’s not fully dressed. Not yet. His face carries a trace of exhaustion, a shadow of hurt. Then, he cracks on that bombastic Elton John signature smile, because the show must go on. People don’t want sad and tired Reginald Dwight. They want campy and exuberant Elton John.
It’s little wonder then how Elton fell for John Reid (Richard Madden), a dashing stud who’d seduce John, becoming his manager, lover, enabler, and ultimately the source of much heartbreak. But before things turn sour, Egerton and Madden share a dizzying sexual chemistry and a steamy sex scene. And while this romance will bring pain, Rocketman posits the enemy to Elton’s happiness was not being gay, but believing his mother’s ignorant warning: that being gay means he’d never have “proper love.” The film’s plot does not extend to when Elton met his now-husband David Furnish (save for an end title card), because this movie isn’t about proving one’s value through romantic achievement. Rocketman is ultimately about how Elton John learned to love himself.
It’s a ragged path that tangles with damaged parents, furtive hook-ups, deceived girlfriends, a formative but brutal first love, self-doubt, addiction, a suicide attempt, and then a hard-fought turn to salvation through self-love and the support of an unwavering friend. The bond between Elton and his long-time songwriting partner Bernie (Jaime Bell) becomes a powerful thread through Rocketman. When they first meet they seem an unlikely duo, with outgoing Elton already finding his way into out-there fashion and the soft-spoken Bernie preferring common jeans and tees. With a warm but slim smile, Bell offers a restrained performance that gives the perfect balance to Egerton’s ever-on Elton. The two share an easy camaraderie that’s instantly heartwarming. When they fight, we worry for them. And when Bernie comes to a recovering Elton with a new song to announce his return to the world and his refusal to give up, they are unstoppable. You can probably guess what the final song number of Rocketman is, but I won’t say. All I’ll say it’s a perfect sendoff for a movie that celebrates the spirit, queerness, and resilience of Elton John.
Rocketman is now in theaters.
Header Image Source: Paramount Pictures