“Rocketman” is better than “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the same way that Elton John was a better songwriter than Queen.
There, I said it -- go ahead and hate. Then ask yourself who had more hits. And whether Queen ever made a record as good as “Tumbleweed Connection.” Or “Madman Across the Water.” Or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
What’s more, the sensational new biopic makes dazzling use of the Elton John songbook, brilliantly reworking tempo, texture and instrumentation on at least 20 terrific tunes.
“Rocketman,” you see, is not a biopic so much as a musical -- with characters bursting into song and dance throughout. At the same time, it explores with great tenderness and clarity John’s transformation from an awkward teen named Reginald to the fifth-highest-selling pop musician of all time: 58 top-40 hits and 300 million total sales.
And yes, relative newcomer Taron Egerton (“Kingsmen,” “Eddie the Eagle”) is fantastic in the lead. Nothing in his limited resume gave any hint that he could act at this level. And unlike “Rhapsody’s” Oscar-winning Rami Malek, Egerton does his own singing. Of course he’s not as great a vocalist as Elton, but the real singing imparts a potent, soulful authenticity to all the songs. As “Rocketman” trots out one toe-tapping tune after another, there are times when the audience also wants to start singing and dancing in the aisles. I sure did.
The movie pulls no punches about John’s homosexuality, his horrific substance abuse and his appetite for self-destruction, fueled by frighteningly cold and selfish parents. In fact, the tale is structured as a flashback, with John recalling his life as he works with an AA-style therapy group. What’s all the more startling is that this no-holds-barred account has full endorsement from John himself, who not only served as exec producer but also worked closely with Egerton throughout. (Early reports indicate that the singer’s own forthcoming memoir -- due in October -- is similarly blunt.)
Just as strong as Egerton is Jamie Bell, here playing John’s long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin. Though their long relationship was entirely platonic, Taupin’s loyal, unconditional love is both exemplary and deeply moving. Not sure why the closing credits needed to say that Elton was “properly loved” only when he married David Furnish in 2014; didn’t Taupin’s love count as “proper”?
In every other way, this thoroughly entertaining film is an absolute must for Elton John fans. And for those who aren’t … well, “Rocketman” might be a good place to start.
directed by Dexter Fletcher
Run time: 121 mins.
* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Rated R for strong language and sexuality