Just a few short months ago, Rami Malek won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in the irresistible rock biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018).
This weekend, it’s Taron Egerton’s turn as he portrays Elton John in “Rocketman,” a giddy yet sobering film that is part chronological biopic and part musical fantasy that’s bound to have fans tapping their feet to the upbeat bangers and humming along to the beautiful ballads.
Developed by Elton John himself, the autobiographical film charts Reginald Dwight’s unlikely evolution from bespectacled young dreamer growing up in 1950s England to the flamboyant international rock showman of the 1970s. Along the way, he struggles with drug, alcohol and sex addiction, all while seeking social acceptance amid his own burgeoning homosexuality.
Actor Taron Egerton shakes off his action-comedy persona as Eggsy in the “Kingsman” series (2014-2017) to stretch himself as a performer, reuniting with his “Eddie the Eagle” (2015) director Dexter Fletcher. It’s Egerton’s best performance yet, not merely playacting Elton John but becoming him in look and manner. Most impressive is that he actually sings the numbers, unlike Malek, who mostly lip-synced despite his masterful recreation of Mercury’s Live-Aid.
Bryce Dallas Howard (“Jurassic World”) plays his mother, who nurtures his innate gift but later brings him to tears by insisting that he’ll never be truly loved as a homosexual. Likewise, his father, played by Steven Mackintosh (“Underworld”), doesn’t believe in his musical gifts until he is already a best-selling artist — and even then he only wants to make a buck off his son.
Such backhanded praise cuts just as deep as the blatant betrayal by manager and love interest John Reid, played by Robb Stark himself Richard Madden. Ironically, his “Game of Thrones” co-star Aidan Gillen (aka Littlefinger) played the role of Reid more sympathetically in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Madden’s take is more akin to Allen Leech’s sleazy Paul Prenter.
The best supporting performance comes from former child star Jamie Bell (“Billy Elliot”) as Elton’s longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. In one tender scene, Elton leans in for a kiss, only for Bernie to stop him, “I love you, man. Just not like that.” Later, during a heated backstage argument, Elton erupts, “Just write the words and let me do the rest!” Ashamed, Elton turns back to apologize, but Bernie cuts him off to say, “I know.” It’s the type of “inside each other’s head” relationship that feels authentic with rare chemistry between two actors.
Fittingly, the script is penned by Oscar-nominated “Billy Elliot” screenwriter Lee Hall, who also penned “War Horse” (2012) for Steven Spielberg. In “Rocketman,” Lee’s framing device is a substance abuse support group, allowing the flawed protagonist to work out his insecurities and inner demons, while allowing the audience to jump back and forth between flashbacks of his life and career, even having the ghosts of friends and family appearing in the rehab room.
It’s all creatively directed by Fletcher, who was tapped to finish “Bohemian Rhapsody” when Bryan Singer left mid-project. This time, Fletcher takes a far different approach than a straightforward chronicling of events, instead presenting a whimsical fantasy musical like Julie Taymor’s underrated “Across the Universe” (2007). The kaleidoscopic imagery and magical realist tones are engrossing, even if it becomes campy with the gloss of “Rock of Ages” (2012) rather than the avant-garde risk taking of the stellar Beach Boys biopic “Love & Mercy” (2014).
Still, the film delivers where it counts the most in its staging of Elton’s greatest hits. We see his childhood self singing “The Bitch is Back,” a carnival rendition of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” brief demo snippets of “Candle in the Wind,” “Daniel” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” at a recording studio piano, a touching living room performance of my personal favorite “Your Song” and a fitting soundtrack of “Amoreena” as he arrives in L.A.
This sets up the showstopping number, floating in the air to “Crocodile Rock” during his starmaking performance at The Troubadour. We then get an interpretive “Tiny Dancer” at a free-spirited party in the Hollywood Hills, a frustrated “Bennie & The Jets” mashing keys in an extravagant costume, an abstract “Rocketman” as he sinks underwater in a suicide attempt, a rock-bottom “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” at a swanky bar, a redemptive “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” in the recording studio and a bittersweet “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” duet with Bernie hopping into a cab, all culminating with “I’m Still Standing” post-rehab.
The one odd choice is “Pinball Wizard,” which Elton covered for the film “Tommy” (1975) but is more associated with The Who. I would have scrapped it in favor of one of the many songs left out: “Levon,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” “Measure of a Man,” “The One,” “Blessed,” “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” or his pair of “Lion King” gems “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
Audiences will perhaps most yearn for a larger treatment of “Candle in the Wind,” famously revamped from a Marilyn Monroe tribute to a dirge for Princess Diana. His tearjerking 1997 performance at Princess Di’s funeral would have been the perfect equivalent of Live-Aid in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Instead, the film ends abruptly with “where are they now” end credits.
No matter, the ride there is mesmerizing, shining new light on the music icon while allowing us to revel in the nostalgia of irresistible tunes. It made hard core fans like yours truly grateful to have seen his farewell tour at Capital One Arena last fall, but for anyone who has been sleeping on his prolific genius, it’s a reminder of just how many masterpieces Elton delivered.