The thematic ambitions of Rocketman are neatly and brilliantly established within the first three minutes of its running time, when Elton John—clad in one of his trademark flamboyant outfits—strides purposefully down a brightly-lit hallway (in melodramatic slow motion, naturally) and emerges… into an A.A. meeting. Midway through his tearful confession of his innumerable addictions, the pendulum swings from tragedy straight back to absurdist comedy, all without sacrificing the gravity and emotional honesty of the subject matter. And Taron Egerton handles the abrupt tonal shifts like a pro, finally shedding his “conventional leading man” image (see: the Kingsman series) and cementing himself as one of the most talented character actors of the current generation (as suggested by his work in Eddie the Eagle).
The entire film is built upon such delicious juxtapositions. Elton himself serves as both protagonist and Greek chorus, commenting on the action (often in a self-deprecating manner) as the narrative jumps between past and present. The visual style, too, frequently alternates between the expected biopic grittiness/naturalism and pure musical fantasy. When Elton performs “Crocodile Rock” at the Troubadour, for example, both he and the audience appear to levitate for one glorious, beautiful, transcendent instant; later, following a near-fatal drug overdose, paramedics strap our hero to a gurney and wheel him directly from the ambulance out onto stage, pumping his stomach and dressing him in a gem-encrusted baseball uniform in a single, seamless motion.
Of course, these aesthetic flourishes would collapse without the foundation of a sturdy story, and Rocketman’s central plot is admirably elegant in its simplicity. The early scenes depict John’s childhood, when he’s still just a shy, pudgy, self-conscious boy named Reginald Dwight—and they are absolutely heartbreaking. Neglected by an indifferent mother and abandoned by a resentful father, the future rockstar spends his life searching for affection and approval. It’s a familiar conflict (Walk the Line traversed similar territory almost fifteen years ago), but screenwriter Lee Hall treats it with a surprising degree of nuance and subtlety; Elton’s experiences have so fundamentally damaged his ability to recognize love that he constantly sabotages his most meaningful relationships in order to pursue temporary gratification—to the detriment of his physical and psychological wellbeing.
It’s a fascinating (albeit probably heavily embellished) portrait of a true icon: uncompromising, imaginative… and a whole lot of fun.