When Elton John (Taron Egerton) literally levitates while playing “Crocodile Rock” at Los Angeles’ Troubadour club in “Rocketman,” legs lifting upward and backward from the piano, the picture levitates along with him.
Blasts off to the stratosphere, powered by the propulsive music and Egerton’s astonishing performance.
That’s Egerton singing Elton’s song, with skill and verve, owning the tune, owning the picture. For a final touch, the wildly applauding audience levitates as well.
Not the way it happened, of course. Like much about “Rocketman,” director Dexter Fletcher (who also took over directing duties on “Bohemian Rhapsody”) and screenwriter Lee Hall have taken great artistic liberties with the facts of Elton’s life. They turn “Rocketman” into a boldly imagined phantasmagoria that captures his spirit and illuminates his triumphs and travails. And it was all done with the blessing of the man himself, who offered Egerton and the filmmakers unrivaled access to him and encouraged their interpretations of him and his times.
The picture follows him from his boyhood in England in the 1950s (where he was born Reginald Dwight) to 1990, when he entered rehab after falling prey to pretty much every excess rock superstardom enables. He reels them off: “alcoholic, cocaine addict, sex addict, shopaholic,” and the movie visits every step along his troubled way.
But “Rocketman” is far more than a mere catalog of rock-god woes. It’s a celebration of his music, the force that lifted him from humdrum beginnings to the heights of fame.
The songs are carefully chosen. And although they’re presented out of sequence in terms of the actual chronology of when they were written, they’re placed in a way that creatively dramatizes key passages in his life.
In a brilliant early scene, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” opens in a pub where 10-year-old Reggie Dwight (played by Kit Connor) is playing as a bar brawl breaks out. It then seamlessly segues to an amusement-park midway where a teenage Reggie, now played by Egerton, continues the tune in a lavishly choreographed production number backed by scores of dancers.
Later, the title song takes him from a suicidal plunge into a swimming pool to a jampacked stadium show where he performs in a spangly baseball uniform (the dazzling costumes by Julian Day deserve top billing along with the stars) as the fans go wild. From the deepest depths of despair to the giddy heights of fame in one smooth sequence.
His passages from boyhood to superstardom is a journey of self-discovery. “I wish I was someone else,” he says early on, and then proceeds to reinvent himself, discarding Reggie Dwight and gradually morphing into Elton John. Along the way he becomes fast friends with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who will become his lyricist. He also gradually comes out as a gay man, and enters into his first long-term relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden), who becomes his manager and with whom he has a bitter breakup. (The picture ends before he meets and marries his husband, David Furnish, who produced the movie with Matthew Vaughn.)
Egerton is commanding throughout. His performance is truly a marvel. “Rocketman” as well.
★★★½ “Rocketman,” with Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard. Directed by Dexter Fletcher, from a screenplay by Lee Hall. 121 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content. Opens May 31 at multiple theaters.