“Taron Egerton is Elton John,” say the billboards for “Rocketman,” and that’s not hyperbole. Egerton’s electric performance as the famed rock star drives this jukebox musical, which imaginatively uses John’s rich trove of songs to tell his story, in a way that produces some genuinely beautiful moments but also at times dilutes the drama.
Although “Rocketman” (which can thank Donald Trump’s Kim Jong Un nickname for extra promotion) will evoke inevitable comparisons to “Bohemian Rhapsody” – basically charting the rise to fame, coming to grips with being gay in the 1970s, and rock-star-sized problems – it’s a very different construct, and not merely because it leans more unflinchingly into that material. (To his credit, John balked at toning down the sex and drugs that go with the rock ‘n roll.)
As opposed to a conventional biography, the movie uses John’s songs to tell the story, bursting into wildly choreographed sequences to illustrate the mood and situations in which he finds himself.
While that brings a more ambitious quality to the movie, the challenge is that because those songs weren’t written explicitly for the storyline, they’re not always a perfect fit. And while that has worked quite well with stage shows – like the Carole King musical “Beautiful” – it’s a slightly different experience dispersed through the medium of film.
As an odd footnote, director Dexter Fletcher actually finished “Bohemian Rhapsody” after Bryan Singer exited the project, giving him a hand (there uncredited) in back-to-back biographies of musical icons.
Here, he teams with writer Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), with John’s blessing as the project’s producer, to chronicle the singer’s life, through his early years as a piano prodigy – with an emotionally distant father (Steven Mackintosh) and unhappy mom (Bryce Dallas Howard) – to his partnership with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), whose lyrics the former Reginald Dwight worked into magic.
While that relationship is presented as a model of friendship, the same doesn’t apply to others in John’s orbit, beginning with manager John Reid (“Game of Thrones’” Richard Madden), who quickly insinuated himself into John’s career and personal life, only to wind up exploiting him.
“It’s gonna be a wild ride,” Reid tells him, and what follows is exactly that – with the occasional feel of a Hollywood rags-to-riches cliché. John turns to booze and pills to help fill the void in his life, with those flamboyant costumes and lavish trappings masking the tears of a clown.
Perhaps for that reason “Rocketman” has an episodic undercurrent to it, punctuated by moments of true splendor (John’s transcendent, star-making 1970 performance at the Troubadour in Hollywood is depicted as literally lifting him, and the audience, off their feet) to the singer sharing a tender moment with his younger self.
As the closing images make clear, these key interludes have been replicated with the utmost care and detail, and Egerton isn’t so much impersonating as inhabiting him, having mastered not just his voice but his mannerisms and internal struggles. Award voters will need to remember a May release, but after Rami Malek’s recent run, one suspects the studio will do its best to remind them.
Those raised on John’s music will surely luxuriate in the songs, from the title track to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Your Song” to “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”
In those moments, it’s easy to share the euphoric sense of being lifted off the ground. It’s only a bit of shame that “Rocketman,” as constructed, doesn’t consistently stay airborne.
“Rocketman” premieres May 31 in the US. It’s rated R.