Freddie Mercury may have had the better voice, but it’s Elton John who gets the better movie.
“Rocketman,” director Dexter Fletcher’s trippy new biopic about the flamboyant rocker is braver, deeper and more enlightening than last year’s slobbering piece of Queen propaganda “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which he also partly directed).
If I was Elton John, I wouldn’t want to relive the pain and heartache “Rocketman” so punishingly depicts. And isn’t that the whole point of a biography?
Take the blunt first line of dialogue. The singer, in a costume of feathery orange wings with horns on his head, storms into a meeting and says, “My name is Elton Hercules John and I’m an alcoholic, and a cocaine addict, and a sex addict and a bulimic.”
Right then somebody in the audience will wonder, “Can’t he just sing ‘Candle in the Wind’ on a lovely big stage?” That’s not the movie you’re in for, ma’am. There’s enough cocaine here to make El Chapo do a spit-take.
The addicts group becomes the frame of the entertaining film, with John (Taron Egerton) telling his life story to a room full of non-famous strangers.
First, it’s back to his middle class English childhood, when John — then called Reggie — was a piano prodigy with a rocker spirit and mean, unaffectionate parents. It’s here when Fletcher introduces the manner in which we experience most of John’s classic tunes: strange musical sequences that he imagines.
A few of the moments, well, they’ve got me quite cross. Nobody wants John’s yardstick of a dad to sing, “I can’t love, shot full of holes,” for example. But the simpler choreographed numbers are transcendent. When John performs his first gig at LA’s Troubadour, and sings “Crocodile Rock,” an ethereal “Laaa la la la la laaa!” is heard as the rocker and his rapt audience float midair. Stunning.
The plot itself is similarly stylized. We never know what year it is, or what album he’s just released, and eras are hopped over with abandon. Instead of charging us $15 for what we can get for free on Wikipedia, it smartly homes in on his relationships with lyricist Bernie Taupin (a sweet Jamie Bell) and manager-lover John Reid (Richard Madden), who probably won’t appreciate that he’s turned into a dirtbag who makes his assistant pleasure him poolside.
Reid is just one part of the character’s complex relationship with being gay that’s addressed here. There’s also his misguided marriage to Renate Blauel in 1984 and his martini-loving mum telling him he’ll never be “properly loved.” Through all the tumult, he guzzles vodka for breakfast and pops every pill imaginable. The film ends with John conquering his demons. We never hear “Candle in the Wind” or meet Princess Di.
This is a star-making performance for Egerton, a fine actor who’s been in a lot of major movies like “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” and “Robin Hood,” but who your cousin in Nebraska has never heard of. As a singer Egerton lands somewhere between Elton John and William Hung, but regardless he feels the words deeply and has so much charisma that his red blood cells may well be sequins. He’ll follow in the footsteps of Rami Malek to an Oscar nod.