Review: 'Rocketman' achieves liftoff

Taron Egerton is a knockout as Elton John in fantasy musical based on John's life

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Taron Egerton in "Rocketman."

Elton John's life is turned into a rip-roaring rock 'n' roll musical in "Rocketman," a fantastical celebration of the man born Reginald Dwight's transformation into one of modern music's most prolific legends. 

Director Dexter Fletcher (who replaced Bryan Singer on "Bohemian Rhapsody") and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Lee Hall ("Billy Elliot") don't have any time for subtlety, nor does it belong in the story of the garishly flamboyant piano man. So they kick down doors right from the jump, when Elton John (played by "Kingsman" star Taron Egerton) bursts into a rehab meeting straight from the stage in an outrageous orange jumpsuit affixed with angel wings at his back and devil horns protruding from his head. 

Did this happen in real life? Absolutely not! (Well, it's Elton John, so there's perhaps a 1.5 percent chance it happened like that.) But it's an early example of the liberties "Rocketman" takes with reality, all for the betterment of this humdinger of a rock daydream. 

"Rocketman" uses Elton John's immense songbook as an open blueprint, tossing chronology out the window in favor of storytelling through music. Some songs, such as "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," are used literally to fit a mood or theme in Elton's life, others are retrofit to suit eras in which they did not yet exist. Want to throw 2001's "I Want Love" into a scene taking place in the 1970s in a movie that stops at 1994? Why not! (Good on the film by throwing the under heralded "I Want Love" into the mix of Elton's greatest hits, by the way; check out the song's video, with a pre-"Iron Man" Robert Downey Jr. lip-syncing in an empty mansion.) 

After early scenes showing Elton's prodigious knack for piano (Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor play younger versions of Elton), the story centers on Elton's struggle for acceptance, from his stern, unloving father (played by Steven Mackintosh) to his dismissive, often inattentive mother (Bryce Dallas Howard). He's forced to cloak his homosexuality, which leads to a destructive, on-off relationship with a record exec (Richard Madden). His true soulmate is Bernie Taupin (an understated Jamie Bell), Elton's lyrical partner, and the second half of his artistic identity. "Rocketman" has no dramatic fireworks to throw at the relationship, since as the film points out they've never had a fight, so their unspoken, almost cosmic alliance gives the film its backbone.

Elsewhere it's song and dance, drink and drugs, important elements of any music biopic, especially Elton John's. Through these scenes, Egerton's steely, soulful performance — especially when he's in a haze of pills at an extravagant mansion party — captures the frustration, longing and despair in Elton John's soul, as well as his ability to light up on cue when he needs to be in rock star mode. The easy thing to do is hone an impression, but Egerton digs in deeper and finds the man inside the costume.

There's a scene in the film in which Elton is performing in front of a sold-out crowd at L.A.'s Troubadour, and while playing "Crocodile Rock," both he and the audience begin to levitate off the ground. In a lesser, more straightforward rock epic, it would come off like a cheap gimmick, but here, it works. Reality is never the point of the story, it's the way music makes you feel, and "Rocketman" — just like Elton John's music — feels like a trip to the moon. 



Rated R: language throughout, some drug use and sexual content

Running time: 121 minutes