Winged, horned, sequined, penis visibly flopping in his thin orange pants, Elton John (Taron Egerton) first bounds into Rocketman down a hallway draped in white light, as if he’s making his way to the stage and the cheers of an arena full of adoring fans. Instead, in a mischievous gag, it’s revealed he’s actually going, in full costume, into rehab (after fleeing, we later learn, a near-disastrous performance at Madison Square Garden). This is a wink: Rock star vanity projects can’t help but open with the star headed into a career-defining comeback concert, a return to glory, before flashing back decades to show how we got there. The bait-and-switch is a coy signal that, if this movie can’t quite reinvent the form, it’s at least going to stomp on it in sparkly red heels.
The movie, sorry to say, can’t quite keep up that swagger. Instead, Rocketman mostly proceeds with studious fidelity through the stations of the rocker biopic, with only a few formal tweaks to the formula. We return swiftly to boyhood, where young Elton (variously Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor) is ignored by his father (Steven Mackintosh) and insidiously doted on by his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, hamming it up agreeably in wigs and carnival-red lipstick). Unlike many other big-ticket rock origin stories, Rocketman does locate some giddy energy, especially early, in staging its jukebox scenes as old-fashioned musical numbers, with choreographed bits set to refashioned classic songs that distract, at least temporarily, from the demands of the storytelling. Alas, when no one’s dancing, the movie dutifully hits us with lines like “I wish I was someone else” as it careens toward adolescence and young adulthood, at which time, in short order, Reginald Dwight becomes Elton John, finds his lifelong songwriting partner in Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and realizes he’s gay.
The movie’s depiction of that last bit has been the subject of advance hype and scrutiny. At first, Rocketman settles on a refreshingly blunt, breezy depiction of John’s sexuality, with John making a pass at Taupin early in their professional romance, and a coming-out scene, involving a girlfriend and strewn clothes, played for laughs. As John heads over the Atlantic and performs his famed shows at the Troubadour, in Los Angeles, he first meets—according to the movie, anyway—John Reid (Richard Madden), the music manager. They have instant chemistry, and before long, they have sex: real, live, camera-doesn’t-turn-away sex. They kiss. They grind. They even face each other in the act, a detail Hollywood fumbles so often that I still meet straight people who don’t know that’s how gay men have sex most of the time. The scene ends before long and leans heavily on gauzy, soft whites, but it is, in a word, inoffensive—to gay viewers, and, as some executives out there are surely hoping, to most audiences panicked by too much man-on-man.
What it is not is particularly groundbreaking. Nor does it make Paramount, the movie’s distributor, the “first major studio” to “depict gay male sex” on screen, as stories in the Hollywood Reporter and the New York Times have claimed. Paramount seems to be relying on a narrow definition of “major studio” (was United Artists not a major studio when it made Cruising back in 1980?) to position itself as a trailblazer in the event that Rocketman, a major summer bet for the company, should underperform at the box office; never mind that the movie is an unabashed musical and decidedly less pandering than, say, Bohemian Rhapsody (the inevitable comparisons to which I will get to shortly). For their part, the stars, Egerton and Madden, have been more circumspect, playing up the scene’s significance only in the sense that it was emotionally pivotal to the movie. They are correct. The unabashed gay lust is rare, at least in a movie of this size, and it has plenty of heat, emotional and otherwise, thanks to fine performances. (Madden, in particular, has harnessed his icy stare and uneasy erotic energy enough in his recent screen appearances that I hope he tops the short list for actors you hire when you want them to look, in love scenes, like they’re going to eat their co-star.)
As it happens, this much-dissected sequence and the dizzy rise-to-stardom moments around it—including, at one point, a rock club audience that spontaneously levitates, literally, to John’s stateside debut—are also the high point of the movie. John’s relationship with Reid deteriorates quickly, and he depressively takes to “fucking half of L.A.” (which the movie declines to depict) and channeling his decadence through prodigious volumes of cocaine (which it is quite eager to depict). Once it gets to the usual collection of famous performances, substance abuse scenes, and historical headlines splayed across the screen, Rocketman never quite finds the wild momentum its characters seem to chase around in all those musical numbers. The dance sequences themselves, to songs like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and the titular track, are plentiful but land inconsistently, particularly a strange “I’m going to rehab!” number set to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” with choreographed stretchers and doctors spinning around the superstar as he finally realizes he’s hit rock bottom. (It’s cheeky, but as the saying goes, The Simpsons did it.) Meanwhile, we frequently revisit that opening group-therapy meeting so John can tell us how to feel and narrate his downfall, an understandable crutch that nearly sinks the movie in a bizarrely stagey emotional climax that collects all the principal players together in one room, in formation, to each deliver a closing monologue. It wasn’t the first time that Rocketman made me wonder whether there had been an Elton John stage musical on which the movie was based. There wasn’t, but the movie often feels as if writer Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse) had conceived the book for one and then rejiggered it as a screenplay.
Which brings us back to the dreaded comparison. Rocketman’s director, Dexter Fletcher, was called in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired (Singer received sole credit), and that has perhaps unfairly tethered the two movies, which also share a music-industry leech in John Reid and the creaky closet of a fabled rocker. It does better with the closet part, though it doesn’t take much to improve on Rhapsody there. Egerton’s controlled mania as John will be a welcome antidote to anyone who found Rami Malek’s toothy turn as Freddie Mercury an empty showpiece. (Egerton also sings Sir Elton’s songs himself, a feat I will leave it to Elton-heads to assess.) Most tellingly, both movies included creative participation from the subjects and their estates, a regrettable necessity to secure music catalogs. And if all music biopics tend to feign the warts-and-all treatment, it’s no surprise when they focus far more on the spontaneous creative brilliance of their anointed legends than on their personal failings. That’s certainly true of Rhapsody, but it’s not always of Rocketman. Save for a protracted, comic series of text-on-screen epilogues, Egerton’s John—prompted by years of abuse, granted—is mostly depicted as having been, offstage, a childish, mean, graceless jerk. It’s a little startling. Rocketman celebrates the skyward achievements of its subject right there in the title, and plenty elsewhere, but it may also remind you that he was, for great stretches, a self-professed bitch.
Unfortunately, there’s one more crucial difference. Say what you will about Rhapsody—I have—but its stadium-rocking Live Aid climax at least provided a stirring, if dishonest, crescendo to the movie. Rocketman struggles to find one, and it really shows. Fletcher, freed on his own, makes a movie more inventive, lush, and convincingly intimate than Bohemian Rhapsody, but it also sort of trails off. You almost long for that triumphant reunion concert after all.