Lisa Fremont’s review published on Letterboxd:
— Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone
When the trailers for Bohemian Rhapsody, the long-struggling Freddie Mercury biopic hit YouTube in early 2018, people got very excited. Here was a film designed to draw in both massive audiences and huge critical acclaim—a biopic about a cultural icon like no other that was set to be one hell of an energetic eye-popping and toe-tapping experience. I had hope in the project that changed its director mid-process and almost cast Ben Agent Q Whishaw as the wide-chested Queen frontman. Then I saw the movie—or rather, as Churchill Osimbo put it, the garbled ESPN reel of Mercury’s life that was Bohemian Rhapsody—and thought, wow, what a let-down that was.
Comparisons of Rocketman to last year’s big music biopic are inevitable because the trailer for Rocketman promised all of those same things. It was a magical 3-minute supercut of another fabulous gay artist’s life that featured great music and gave a euphoric vibe. They had the exact same look, feeling and type of star attached. And let’s not forget that Richard Madden seemed set to play the exact same type of character Allen Leech played in 2018’s disappointment. My fingers were crossed but my expectations were tempered.
As it turns out, Rocketman soars. Like the star at its center, it’s a bit messy and unfocused, but what flaws it has are made up for in a flashy and vivacious experience that does wind up being deserving of its subject matter. It starts a bit sudden, with a therapy scene that feels a tad strained, then quickly delves into Reggie Dwight’s childhood. The two stages of pre-Elton John Elton John are played by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor, two irresistible child actors (who can sing!), while Bryce Dallas Howard delivers a reliably infuriating performance as Reggie/Elton’s mom throughout the movie. We’re introduced to young Reggie’s hardships, most of which are due to his parents’ disdain for him and for one another. We also realize that this movie is going to be a musical featuring a barrage of fantastical effects. Which is always good news.
Eventually, an adult Reggie Dwight meets Bernie Taupin and becomes Elton John. It’s fun at first: there’s bonding, a wonderfully sweet coming out scene, a jubilous first performance and subsequent ascent into fame and a blossoming romance with music manager and certified Hunk™ John Reid (played to an icy perfection by Richard Madden). Then it gets sad as these films usually do when things spiral out of control. Alcohol, drug addictions, relationship abuse and sad orgies enter the chatroom. Some crazy musical numbers string it all together.
Taron Egerton’s performance as Rocketman’s iconic subject is generally pretty good, but there are moments in which he goes overboard with his character’s explosiveness and it comes across as forced. Still, I can’t think of a better leading man for a movie about Elton John. Not only has Egerton expressed a huge reverence for this story which translates into his invigorating performance, but he also has the pipes. It’s commendable that he tried his hand at singing these iconic tunes and even more so that he succeeded with an incredible likeness to the real voice behind them. And Jamie Bell as his best friend and longtime collaborator Taupin? Charming, convincing and utterly adorable. The friendship between the two is the beating heart of the film.
Rocketman may not entirely reinvent the wheel for music biopics, but it does everything it can to deliver an experience that feels entirely unique and memorable. It’s a magical spectacle whose segments are sometimes a bit haphazardly glued together, but it’s nowhere near the incoherent mess that Bohemian Rhapsody was. The fabulous, magnetic, and yes, unapologetically queer spectacle that Elton John, like Freddie Mercury, deserves.