‘Rocketman’ Review

Big screen jukebox musical an enjoyably chaotic mess

A friend described Bohemian Rhapsody, last year's Oscar-winning biopic about Freddie Mercury of Queen, as "like [watching] someone reading the Wikipedia article on Queen out loud." The description has stuck with me because it’s so succinct and so accurate and so damning. It’s not that Bohemian Rhapsody was bad—though it was definitely bad—so much as that it was utterly and confoundingly boring.

This is not a novel observation, but part of the boringness resulted from the fact that the formula Bohemian Rhapsody aped has been done to death and parodied with merciless accuracy and mirthful glee in films like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Early struggles with a disappointed family lead to surprise success which in turns leads to access to drugs and money and sex precipitating a disastrous decline that is usually compounded by a health scare before, inevitably, a glorious rebirth.

Rocketman hews to this formula, naturally, but it manages to avoid the deathly dullness of some of its recent predecessors by adopting the style of a Broadway jukebox musical. The songs of Elton John (played by Taron Egerton in the film) serve as a soundtrack for the life of Reggie Dwight, a piano prodigy who chances into a lifetime collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and becomes the worldwide sunglass-wearing sensation we all know and love today.

Again, the formula is adhered to perfectly. Little Reggie is unloved by his father (Steven Mackintosh) and dismissed by his grotesque of a mother (the generally delightful Bryce Dallas Howard, who feels a bit miscast here as the increasingly puffy gargoyle mommy). He discovers himself in song, attending the Royal Academy of Music, before hitting local joints as the piano player for a small band and a backing musician for an American tour of soul singers. Success with Bernie leads to drugs, drugs lead to excess, yadda yadda yadda, one rehab stint later and everything turns out okay, more or less.

Punctuating each of these moments are big flashy dance numbers and little bits of surrealism. The surrealism I don't mind so much—Does Elton John turn into a literal rocket while he sings "Rocket Man," blasting off into the sky, getting hiiiighhhhiiigh as a kite? You bet your sweet ass he does!—but the song-and-dance numbers do get a bit tiresome. Sure, "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" lends itself to a Jets-Sharks style snapoff in the middle of a carnival, but you don't have to indulge every cinematic whim. If I wanted a Broadway spectacular I’d go to a Broadway spectacular.

Still, these moments of spectacle manage to attract the eye and appeal to the ear. I was certainly never bored by what director Dexter Fletcher was conjuring up. And I appreciate screenwriter Lee Hall’s efforts to wrap the formula in a shiny new package, though I'm not entirely sure the framing device he settled on—the film is technically a series of flashbacks from a rehab session—quite works. Rocketman may not be the formula-busting success some are suggesting, but it's certainly a step up from recent snoozefests.