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Framed as a rehab therapy session, with the subject – Elton John – recalling the circumstances leading to his sitting in a recovery circle, Rocketman, from director Dexter Fletcher (the same passionate Brit who was called in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody when director Bryan Singer was fired) is a fabulous “juke-box” memory musical that absolutely suits its flamboyant subject. Eschewing strict chronology in favour of “ecstatic truth”, Fletcher’s fantasia nonetheless manages to tell his subject’s life – echoing a “traditional biopic” – even as he turns it into a musical.
The direct influence here is Ken Russell, another British music-mad auteur with a penchant for flamboyance. He made Tommy, Lisztomania, Mahler and The Music Lovers, among many others, and those films are clearly inspirational for Fletcher’s work here; indeed, there are bounteous direct references. Elton John was in Tommy (as The Pinball Wizard), and watching the brilliant Taron Egerton, as John, singing Pinball Wizard, in a sequence that is an homage to Tommy, is trippy, and designed as such.
The whole movie is full of such bold delights; it’s fun, fun fun, and at its most fun when – about every nine minutes – characters burst into (an Elton John) song, arranged and structured so as to comment on, or further, the action. Egerton is astonishingly good, doing all his own singing to boot (which Rami Malek did not do in the far, far inferior Bohemian Rhapsody, a film to which this one will be endlessly compared, in Rocketman’s favour). He progresses from a very fresh-faced young talent to a very angry, very drug-addled superstar with precision and panache. He deserves Malek’s Oscar; this is the performance of a sexually conflicted London-born piano-playing singing and songwriting prodigy with serious addiction problems that the world should remember.
The film has faults; the recovery framework, while being essential to the movie’s terrific structure, is its own worst enemy in some extremely cheesy, on-the-nose “therapy-speak” moments towards the film’s end, and John’s demons, personified by three particular individuals, are portrayed with too heavy a hand. But overall, Rocketman is a joyous spectacle crafted with obvious love, care, passion and skill. See it on a Friday night with a crowd; you’ll find yourselves applauding some of the numbers.