Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher, is an occasionally-charming love letter to music legend Elton John. The fact that John himself produced it is heartily apparent in every frame, as it was made clear Rocketman wouldn’t shy away from exploring John’s history with drug addiction. While it does venture into the drug-fueled side of rock-and-roll more than 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, it is still a careful retelling of a beloved performer’s rise to fame. Rocketman doesn’t want viewers to dwell on anything about Elton John past that they couldn’t learn from an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music. It wants you to walk out of the theater humming “I’m Still Standing” and then buy tickets to the Broadway show that is no doubt already in planning. As a result, it isn’t the film and journey that it should be, but that won’t stop his fans from applauding during the credits.
Reggie Dwight (played as a child by Matthew Illesley and a teenager by Kit Connor) has a knack for hearing music only one time and then being able to play it note-for-note on the piano. Reggie’s detached and cold parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), don’t see much of a future in music, but Reggie continues to wow audiences wherever he goes. As a young adult, Reggie (Taron Egerton) starts to make a name for himself through his energetic playing and showmanship. He chooses to go by the stage name “Elton John” and quickly rises to stardom through his entrancing performances and outrageous costumes as he moves from small clubs to stadiums, John’s career skyrockets. Offstage, he falls into destructive habits.
It’s hard not to compare Rocketman to last year’s Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Both, directed by Dexter Fletcher, who took over Rhapsody part of the way through production, but was not credited for his work. Rocketman is a more watchable film than Rhapsody, although maybe not quite as crowd-pleasing. Unlike the lip-synched performances in Rhapsody, the cast of Rocketman provided new vocals for each musical number. What’s fascinating about this choice is how the actors don’t try to emulate the vocal stylings of John’s music perfectly. Rocketman also has no interest in presenting John’s music chronologically. Child Elton belts out 1974’s “The Bitch is Back,” an odd representation of how music allows him to rebel. His young adult incarnation will sing 2001’s “I Want Love” because it fits the theme of that particular scene. The songs serve as large choreographed song-and-dance numbers, while this allows Rocketman to set itself apart from Rhapsody, in these moments, Rocketman doesn’t resemble a film so much as an inoffensive stage production.
Taron Egerton does a commendable job in the awkward position of taking on someone as animated as Elton John. Egerton’s singing is pleasant and greatly benefits from not having to match John’s vocal range. He also doesn’t just do a stock impersonation throughout the entire film. The only moment when he tries to hit that signature vocal cadence is in his very first scene, barging into an addiction support group in a fantastic stage costume. Fortunately, we don’t need Egerton to sound precisely like Elton John; we know what that legendary voice sounds like. Egerton smartly embodies the multiple facets of John and doesn’t try to make us think we have stepped in a time machine.
Egerton is the only performer with much to do in Rocketman. Howard has absolutely nothing to work with as John’s mother. She seems almost to be playing a British version of her cold housewife role from The Help. Mackintosh, as John’s hard-to-please father, always seems on the verge of devolving into parody, similar to the character lampooned in 2007’s comedy classic Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It is difficult not to laugh even though he is treating his son exceptionally poorly. It is doubtful anyone — John especially — wanted audiences to react like this.
Rocketman seems less interested in presenting the full dark side of John and more interested in just skimming the surface. Although the film does confront John’s issues with drug addiction, it feels like we are still getting a sanitized version of what happened. Late in the movie, John apologizes to friends for mistreating them throughout his career. The problem is that, in the film version, John hasn’t been all that awful. Mostly, we see him abused by people he trusts. While it might be true that John wasn’t all that vile of a person, it is difficult to shake the feeling that we aren’t being told anything close to the full truth. Rocketman wants to entertain its audience, but not tell the complete story — halting the film from being as legendary as John himself.