Rocketman is directed by Dexter Fletcher and stars Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh, Gemma Jones, Charlie Rowe, and Stephen Graham.
The film is about the life and career of Reginald Dwight, a.k.a Elton John (Egerton): one of the biggest and boldest stars in rock ‘n’ roll history. The film largely recounts Elton’s early life and meteoric rise to superstardom, showcasing the life and experiences that made him into the icon he is today. Through the gargantuan highs and the devastating lows, this film explores what truly set Elton apart from the rest, and how he rose above fame, fortune, and his own personal struggles to truly become a living legend.
If I might take my readers on a bit of a trip through history for a moment, I present 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody: the biographical retelling of the life of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury that endured quite the journey to its release. After pre-production drama including a series of questionable executive decisions and an eventual firing of director Bryan Singer before the film’s completion, things were a little uncertain, to say the least.
And now, enter Dexter Fletcher.
An Executive Producer and Second Unit Director for Bohemian Rhapsody, Fletcher was brought in to finish the post-production work that was left, and ultimately saved the movie from becoming a near-complete studio disaster. Looking to silence critics and prove that he’s not just a one-time talent, Fletcher finally has a fair and full chance to do his thing from start to finish. Can he prove he has what it takes to capture a life and career as magnificent as Elton’s, or will he crack under the weight of such a mammoth undertaking?
In an outright masterful defiance of the pressure stacked against them, Fletcher and co. have risen above any doubt and have crafted one of the most boldly unique musical biopics I’ve ever seen. Everything about Rocketman is irresistibly captivating and does the utmost justice to a life and career unlike any other, yet still manages to be a wholly unique and emotionally powerful piece of cinema on its own.
Something that truly sets Rocketman apart from the rest of its kind is the way it utilizes elements of musical fantasy to tell its story. From the first frame onward, the film carries a powerfully magical sense of spirit in its style–a style that permeates many of the film’s fantastical and visually transcendent musical sequences and emotional moments. Whether it be to creatively transfer pockets of narrative information, captivate with insanely beautiful and meaningful frames, or highlight the true power behind some of the most iconic songs of the late twentieth century, this film’s style is so distinguished and inventive that it feels like one of the most important characters throughout.
In a film that’s packed with such star power, it’s not to be ignored that one of the biggest stars responsible for this film is undoubtedly Dexter Fletcher. As a director, he truly understands the essence of what made Elton’s life and career so significant, and radiates that same essence throughout every inch of this film. The unreal care and attention to detail in every moment prove that Fletcher is here to stay, and is one of the most unique directorial visions working today. Fletcher also demonstrates a thorough understanding of the conditions needed to tell a story such as this one, wielding many necessary elements to properly build his narrative, from designated times for dramatic tension and sobriety from the moments of narrative whimsy, to the film’s much-needed R rating. Fletcher knows exactly what story he’s telling and knows exactly how that story should be told–a true director in command of his work.
Many of the performances on the job throughout Rocketman are first-rate across the board, illustrating the sheer talent and range carried by a cast such as this. Notable standouts include Howard and Madden, who both nail every second of their respective screentime. It’s also quite a pleasure to see Jamie Bell in good work for once, as the long-mistreated talent is a delight as John’s longtime friend Bernie Taupin. In a film about such a significantly eye-catching and lively personality, it would seem an impossible task to focus on any side characters in lieu of such an onscreen presence. Yet, the energy and passion that the cast brings to their roles are palpable, making for one of the best casts I’ve seen in a musical biopic.
And then there’s Taron Egerton.
Similarly to Elton in the early years, the charming Welsh mega-talent has rocketed (I couldn’t resist) his way to movie stardom ever since his break in the Kingsman franchise. And ever since this film’s production was announced, I was madly excited to see what one of my favorite new actors would do with such a life as that of the famed British rockstar. Just like his director, Egerton steps into the colossal uncertainty of such a task with poise, drive, and pure love, and is a Herculean tour de force as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest legends. There is a purely undeniable sense of dazzling bravado that Egerton brings from his very first seconds onscreen and is beyond transformative, even unrecognizable at many points. Egerton never once loses his way and brings the thunder unlike any actor I’ve seen in recent memory. Furthermore, the fact that all his wildly impressive singing is done 100% live is just another reason that this performance deserves to be talked about as one of the best of the year.
Creating the soundtrack for a film such as this can oftentimes be an immense task for two reasons. For starters, a good majority of the songs on a biopic’s soundtrack already exist, and are held very dear by the artist’s fans. Furthermore, Elton’s discography in and of itself is so immeasurably iconic and well-known that replication of these songs, especially in service of a larger two-hour feature film, would be seemingly impossible. It’s an absolute marvel that, like this film, Rocketman’s soundtrack pays loving homage to the legacy and career of such an artist, yet still manages to separate itself as a new product and not just a rehash. I’ve had this film’s soundtrack on constant repeat since I saw the film, as both Egerton and John himself combine in a dynamite symbiosis, elevating each song in Elton’s arsenal to unbelievable new heights. (This film’s rendition of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is arguably one of my favorite Elton songs, period. I can’t even begin to remember the last time a movie did that.)
Despite its many triumphs, however, it’s worth noting that Rocketman unfortunately can’t outrun a few inevitable tropes familiar to the genre. Even in the shadow of the excellent performances, some of this film’s characters feel like caricatures, like archetypes born in a film we’ve all seen a million times. These familiar arcs and character beats are largely found in the characters played by Howard, Madden, and Mackintosh, so they’re not extremely present throughout the 121-minute total. I’m also aware that this particular issue of mine makes Rocketman seem like a victim of circumstance, and this may be so. However, there are only so many times I can see an artist’s life ruined by a cold and unloving parent or a villainous and money-hungry manager. Character writing is important, be those characters fictional, nonfictional, or otherwise. (That being said, at this point I’m convinced there should be a John Reid cinematic universe. The man is everywhere. Someone make it happen.)
Rocketman also raises a number of questions regarding the pacing of its events and the passage of time in general. While it’s very well understood that this film largely captures Elton’s rise to fame and early life, there’s never any clear visual indication that time is going by, apart from Elton’s obvious progression from childhood to adolescence and eventually adulthood. Again, this issue is the fault of many biopics nowadays, so I can’t knock this film alone for such an offense, but this one just so happens to currently be in the hot seat. I’m sure 2022’s Milli Vanilli biopic won’t have the world’s most phenomenal pacing either, but time will tell, won’t it?
In an ever-growing modern circulation of musical biopics, Rocketman is not only a loving and proper tribute to the (larger-than) life it presupposes, but also distinguishes itself as a beautifully made and joyfully-passionate adventure like none other. In the time I’ve thought about this film since I’ve seen it, it just continues to get better and better. Everything from the soundtrack to the performances to the fantastically magical sense of narrative wonder will bring audiences on a true journey, and it’s going to be a long, long time before a biopic impresses quite like this one. I’m thrilled to give Rocketman an A.
This review and its content were edited by Kayla Randolph, Chief Editor at Reel Thoughts.