Elton John gets the jukebox musical biopic treatment in this crowd-pleasing blend of hits and history from director Dexter Fletcher and the writer of Billy Elliot. Comparisons to last year's Bohemian Rhapsody are inevitable – and not just because Fletcher stepped in to finish that film after Bryan Singer left – but while Rocketman shares a few of that film's flaws, it more than makes up for them in terms of storytelling, performance, visual spectacle and strong emotion.
Scripted by Lee Hall, the opening to the film is inspired. Wearing an outlandishly coloured costume with giant devil horns, Elton (Taron Egerton) comes storming down a corridor and throws open some doors as if he's about to go on stage. Instead he walks into an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting where he introduces himself, lists his multiple problems (including alcoholism, cocaine addiction, bulimia and anger management) and launches into a narration of his life and career.
That simple conceit serves two brilliant purposes: it allows for flights of fancy in the storytelling (with multiple musical numbers and characters frequently breaking into song) and it instantly excuses any narrative embellishments, because the story can be interpreted as Elton's version of events (the picture received his full endorsement and he serves as executive producer).
With the framing device in place, the film charts Elton's beginning as lonely Pinner schoolboy Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley, then Kit Connor), whose prodigious musical talents are largely ignored by his indifferent parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but encouraged by his supportive grandmother (Gemma Jones). A fortuitous meeting with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) leads to a lifelong (platonic) song-writing partnership that takes them to Los Angeles and phenomenal, chart-topping success.
Throughout his career, Elton's meteoric success has almost a mirror image in the heart-breaking depths plumbed by his personal life, not least when he comes out to his mother over the phone and she casually replies that he'll never know what it is to be loved “properly”. Certainly, what we see of Elton's lovelife could charitably be called a car crash, encompassing a toxic relationship with lover-turned-manager John Reid (Richard Madden) and a short-lived marriage to German sound engineer Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker), who's given three very efficient scenes here. After that break-up, Elton spirals further into his various addictions, which is what brings him to the rehab group in the first place.
Egerton is simply wonderful as Elton, capturing his flamboyant stage presence (and also doing all his own singing), but also convincingly portraying his inner torment. It might be overly simplistic to suggest that all Elton's problems stemmed from not getting the love he needed from his parents, but both Egerton and the script ensure that those moments are utterly heart-breaking, landing with a devastating emotional punch.
The supporting cast are equally good, particularly Jamie Bell as Taupin, whose touching relationship with Elton forms the beating heart of the film – the scene where Taupin casually accepts that Elton is gay is brilliantly handled and all the more effective for its simplicity. Madden is also well used and there's a fun turn from Stephen Graham as promoter Dick James (who invented the “old grey whistle test” as an indicator of a song's likely success).
However, what really makes the film work is the sheer exuberance of the musical numbers, coupled with Fletcher's consistently inventive direction. The transitions, in particular, are inspired, often using the musical sequences to make seamless narrative segues. Highlights include: Elton's first transcendent first performance at L.A's Troubador club, when the entire crowd – and Elton himself – seem to levitate into the air; a moving suicide attempt sequence where Elton encounters himself as a young boy (Illesley again) singing at the bottom of the pool; and a stunning, almost balletic sequence that seamlessly takes Elton from hospital bed to being on stage again.
Perhaps wary of the “straightwashing” criticisms showered on Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman compensates with a surprisingly hot gay sex scene between Egerton and Madden that feels quite ground-breaking for a mainstream studio picture and is entirely befitting of the film's treatment of Elton's sexuality throughout.
The film is further heightened by some fabulous costume work from Julian Day, with the film taking pains to highlight their accuracy by matching up side-by-side photos in the end credits. There are also some lovely little vanity-free touches, such as a running joke about Elton's hairline that gets a big laugh in a (literal) throwaway moment.
In short, this is a hugely entertaining musical biopic that pushes all the right buttons, thanks to inventive direction, a terrific central performance and a jukebox full of deliriously enjoyable musical numbers.