The best thing about Rocketman is how it treats the music of its namesake and central character, Elton John. While many music biopics literalize their subject’s most famous tunes, showing you how they were written or how they were inspired, Rocketman uses Elton John’s music to service his story instead of making it the story itself. The result is a movie that—even if it’s somewhat familiar—feels more resonant and emotionally-charged than many others of its genre. Rocketman has the flourish to honor its star.
While most of the story here indeed follows Elton John’s musical career, tracing his path from prodigious piano player to the out-and-out biggest rock star in the world, Rocketman is interested in more than his success, and that idealistic mission has a sense of honesty behind it. That’s because the movie’s stylings convey a level of intention and thoughtfulness other (lazier) music flicks don’t have.
While Bohemian Rhapsody and Straight Outta Compton purported to be about something beyond their subject’s Wikipedia summaries, they didn’t make a huge effort to tap into the inner lives of Freddie Mercury or the members of NWA, respectively. That makes both movies feel a little flat and unresponsive, and in turn, unnecessary. It’s only when biopics look to profile their subjects as much as summarize their lives that their loftier examinations feel energetic and purposeful. That’s the case with Rocketman.
That’s not to say Rocketman is profound or “important,” but it communicates an understanding of Elton John’s character and influence that brings a nice balance to reverence and real-ness. Its main mode of doing this is by turning Elton John’s catalog into the soundtrack of his own movie, rather than sprinkling them around as narrative beats.
Maybe it would have been fun to see how “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” came to be, but it’s more electric to watch a teenage Elton John channel his angst by performing the song at the center of a rocking and rolling fairground. The true story behind “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” might carry plenty of emotion itself, but when Elton joins lyricist Bernie Taupin in a duet of the tune to reflect on their friendship, you won’t miss any alternate rendition. Rocketman isn’t interested in musical origin stories. The soundtrack’s deployment here is thus freer, more creative and more surprising. No spoilers how the titular song comes into play, but it’s not how you expect, and the way it catches you off-guard might just lead to the conclusion that, holy smokes, it’s the best scene in the whole movie.
Focusing more on emotion than biography means Taron Egerton has to bring dimension to his portrayal of Elton John, and he sure does. The actor’s just 29, but his youth is to his tremendous advantage in Rocketman. Egerton can carry all the superstar’s chaotic energy and thirsty desperation. He can stick his nose in the air and strut about like a diva. He can show his wounds and his hurt and he can bury those things under bottles (and pill boxes, and tabletops, and spoonfuls) of vice. Even as the movie extends to John’s later years, Egerton transcends the age gap to maintain the musician’s petulance, regality and longing. He’s terrific.
Opposite Egerton is Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin. Performance-wise, Bell reveals himself to be as much of a chameleon as his co-star, but in terms of the story, Taupin’s a sturdy foil to John’s erraticism. His clear-mindedness creates a contrast that helps you as the viewer evaluate John on a deeper level than his fame and success, and as that mode of engagement is Rocketman‘s primary concern, it makes Bell worthy of the movie’s MVP award.
Rocketman channels all its energies toward Elton John’s lifelong search for love. The scenes of his childhood center on his relationship with his father, those of his early days show him hungry for approval from executives and when he reaches the heights of celebrity, the movie measures his achievement in relationships—romantic, familial or friendly—instead of wealth. It makes Rocketman feel like a character study rather than a trip through a high-budget wax museum, and it renders the accuracy of the movie somewhat irrelevant besides. Capturing the essence of Elton John is more important here than recreating his life moment-by-moment.
And though it’s not perfect—the movie still contains myriad cliches—Rocketman reveals how valuable a biographic movie can be when it has its priorities in order. Movies are instructive, reflective experiences, and sometimes music-centered biopics reflect the tumult of fame and fortune through grounded realism and grit, like A Star Is Born. That’s one way to make famous people human, but Rocketman‘s heightened methods deliver human elements even while honoring its subject’s fantastic sensibilities. It won’t teach you much about Elton John, but you’ll understand him. It’s the difference between knowing someone’s story and knowing their heart.
Tyler Daswick is a senior writer at Relevant. Follow him on Twitter @tylerdaswick.