Fresh off Rami Malek’s Academy Award-winning TikTok performance as Freddie Mercury, fill-in “Bohemian Rhapsody” director Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John biopic promises a similar star vehicle for up-and-comer Taron Egerton (“Kingsman,” the Elton John-singing gorilla in “Sing”). Here, Egerton provides an affirmative answer to the question of whether two hours and one minute of Elton John covers could be watchable, because if anything, it’s annoying whenever Egerton isn’t the one singing — which happens, as the film is a musical — given his zealous facsimile of John’s falsettos, cadence and vocal flair.
Framed as a rehab center reflection during a group therapy session, “Rocketman” chronologically takes us through Elton’s life, returning to the group momentarily for largely unnecessary commentary and a collective chuckle. But the film appears to transcend this clichéd framing the minute young Elton (Matthew Illesley) appears as a flashback in the rehab center.
Taking over the opening lyrics of eternal bop “The Bitch Is Back” with a slow soprano, young Elton leads the group to a 1950s English street as the white walls of the center disappear. Elton and his younger self are dressed as pops of color in a grayscale world of upbeat, Broadway-esque choreography, of skirt twirls and partner lifts, and the first musical number manifests the film’s surrealist conceit.
But once this number finishes, the narrative itself becomes grayscale, its dialogue aggravatingly flat. Elton’s early life is populated by archetypes — his disapproving dad, encouraging grandma, amazed piano teacher, etc. — each character more one-note than the last. Bryce Dallas Howard’s turn as Elton’s mother Sheila stands as the greatest mark missed, her role a one-dimensional Lucille Bluth caricature expected to invite laughs by simply holding a martini glass.
The blatant comedic relief is confusingly paired with an overbearing “Isn’t this heartbreaking?” tone whenever the camera cuts to young Elton’s puppy-dog eyes. These archetypes join together for the blatantly saccharine ensemble number “I Want Love,” with the emotional depth of the song’s title somehow expected to stand in for character development. It’s clear that the material would be much better served on the stage, where some forgiveness of transgressions is allowed by virtue of the performances being live and one-dimensional characters can be embraced at face value.
Fortunately, “I Want Love” stands as the only bad musical performance in a movie with 21 of them. Egerton knows that half the fun of seeing Elton John live is his theatrics, which he leans into with masterfully self-aware confidence, made visual by his lavish, grandiose costumes. The film’s titular performance of “Rocketman” pulls no punches in its fantasia and choreography, with Elton raised in the sky by EMTs in a Christ-like pose. The film shines when it asks audiences to suspend disbelief, such as during “Crocodile Rock”: both when Elton floats in midair and when all key figures pull extended mugs of skepticism at the opening notes, which then, rest assured, transform into smiles by the chorus.
Egerton’s theatrics are strongly paralleled by his romantic timidity, his self-assuredness eradicated by his crushes on Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and John Reid (Richard Madden). While “Bohemian Rhapsody” may have excluded much of Freddie Mercury’s sexuality from its storyline, Elton’s gayness is unabashedly explored in “Rocketman.” Here, debates on queer actors for queer parts aside, Egerton shines — from his subtle looks of desire, manifested by an impassioned “Tiny Dancer,” to the domestic bliss of his early days with Reid portrayed in a foot-tapping “Honky Cat” number.
I just saw Bohemian Rhapsody and learned you contract AIDS from lingering eye contact with unnamed male extras.
— Guy Branum (@guybranum) November 4, 2018
Yet for all Egerton brings to the role, the film frustratingly refuses to crucify, or even softly prod, its protagonist. While the ending on-screen text portends that the film was about addiction throughout, the consequences of this cinematic addiction are nonexistent, the intended tear-jerking scenes not even a fraction as successful as that two-minute Elton John piano commercial from last Christmas. Empathy can’t be accomplished when nearly everyone in Elton’s life is a villain caricature throughout, and the early scenes of Elton’s life prove to solely be fodder for an eye roll of a climactic revelation. While the musical scenes of “Rocketman” may soar, “it’s gonna be a long, long time” before a complex portrayal of the musical legend’s life will come to screen.