It’s garish, indulgent and over the top. But “Rocketman” is about Elton John, so why wouldn’t it be those things?
We expect nothing less for a biopic of the extremely silly but extremely talented Mr. John, and — though it steps on its high-heeled feet a few times — this movie delivers. And at least it’s better than “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall take a gamble on the approach. Instead of ticking off Elton’s greatest hits in order of their composition, they scatter his tunes throughout his story — a proper musical, that is, with characters breaking into song in the middle of a dramatic scene.
So Elton first sings “The Bitch Is Back” as a boy piano prodigy, born with the insufficiently showbizzy name Reginald Dwight. The teenage Elton does “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” during a rough night at a local pub (a terrific sequence).
Not all the song concepts click. I’m pretty sure I slapped my head when “Rocket Man” started unfolding in a swimming pool and continued as Elton is rushed to the hospital after a drug overdose.
On the other hand, “Your Song” quite rightly gets the big this-is-the-breakthrough sequence. “Honky Cat” does lively duty in a production number that confirms, in vivid terms, that our boy Elton is about to go off the deep end into the world of sex, drugs and possibly a little rock and roll.
“Rocketman” wallows too long in that excessive period. But then the entire film is a therapy movie; its first scene has Elton striding into an AA meeting (in a sequined devil outfit, obviously) and telling his story in flashback from there.
The road-to-sobriety storyline is overused in this kind of bio, and the movie also makes a misstep in ending without a really big, knock-‘em-dead production number.
But, to coin a phrase, it’s still better than “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And as though in response to some criticism of that movie, “Rocketman” makes sure we’re in no doubt about Elton John’s status as a very gay man.
Whatever this movie’s blunders, it succeeds because of two big selling points: the songs are just as catchy as they were in 1973, and Elton John is splendidly incarnated by Taron Egerton. The star of the “Kingsman” movies completely hurls himself into the role, and (even if he doesn’t have Elton’s highest register) contributes credible vocals on the songs.
Jamie Bell adds a little grit to the otherwise saccharine role of lyricist Bernie Taupin, Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh are appropriately frosty as Elton’s parents, and Richard Madden is hissable as the movie’s villain, predatory lover-manager John Reid (also a character in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but we’ll stop mentioning that).
Elton John is credited as executive producer on “Rocketman,” so the movie is probably the way he’d like us to remember him. It has moments that feel like a naughty boy trying to make amends — to the managers he brashly dumped, to the wife he impulsively married.
Even though the music gets re-shaped for the purposes of drama, it remains hard to resist. You’ll walk out humming the highs and lows of Elton John’s life, which is apparently how he wants it.
“Rocketman” (3 stars)
The still-catchy songs and Taron Egerton’s splendid performance make this Elton John biopic hard to resist, even if it steps on its high-heeled feet a few times. The songs are used as in a proper musical, scattered throughout Elton’s life story — told in flashback from an AA meeting, as the singer recounts a life of excess.
Rating: R, for language, subject matter
Showing: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall