The musical “Rocketman” is a fun, emotionally affecting, spiritual biography of the life and career of Elton John — a movie that exploits every cliche in the genre, and earns the audience’s love anyway.
The love comes in part because screenwriter Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) plays on the audience’s sympathy early, by showing the sad childhood experienced by the young Reginald Dwight (played as a youth by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor). His father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) is aloof and cold, while his mum Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) is self-centered and dismissive of Reggie’s burgeoning musical talent. Only his nan, Ivy (Gemma Jones), sees the potential in her grandson’s piano playing.
Rock and roll becomes Reggie’s salvation. First Reggie (played as an adult by “Kingsman” star Taron Egerton) plays local pub gigs (shown through a lively song-and-dance number to “Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)”), then backs up a touring American soul revue. That gets Reggie — who picks the stage name Elton John — the attention of a junior record-company executive (Charlie Rowe), who pairs him with a budding poet, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell).
It was at this point where “Rocketman” charmed me into liking it. Director Dexter Fletcher (who directed Egerton in “Eddie the Eagle”) sweetly underplays the first meeting of one of pop music’s most successful songwriting teams, showing two shy guys at a diner, bonding over a shared love of Marty Robbins’ “Streets of Laredo.” Later we see Elton at the piano with some of Bernie’s new lyrics, and watching that spontaneous moment of the creation of “Your Song” brings a tear to the eye.
A moment like that makes one think about “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Queen biopic that was wall-to-wall scenes of how a random incident would inspire a classic song. Fletcher famously took over “Bohemian Rhapsody” when produces fired the still-credited director, Bryan Singer, over bad on-set behavior. “Rocketman” feels, in part, like Fletcher’s effort to prove what he could do with a musical biography from scratch. (One area where “Rocketman” excels over “Bohemian Rhapsody” is that there’s actually something close to a male-on-male sex scene, between Elton and his longtime manager and lover, John Reid, played by Richard Madden.)
Fletcher presents many of John’s best songs as opportunities for span stretches of his career, or to illuminate Elton’s fragile emotional state. The most touching is when a drug-addicted Elton attempts suicide via an overdose and a jump into his pool — which cues a rendition of the movie’s title track, with Egerton singing through a dance interpretation of an emergency-room visit.
The scenes of Elton’s rags-to-riches rise and his suffering of many addictions are the sort of predictable moves that “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” parodied so perfectly that no filmmaker should ever use them again. (The opening shot, of a devil-costumed pre-show Elton walking into a rehab support group, is the epitome of the “Dewey Cox has to think about his whole life before he plays” framing-device scene.)
And while Egerton aims for a physical approximation of Elton John in his performance, he’s not as obsessive about it as Rami Malek was with replicating Freddie Mercury’s every move. And, unlike Malek, Egerton is actually singing the songs. (Egerton and John, who appeared in the second “Kingsman” movie, sing a duet to a new song over the closing credits.) The result is a rich, emotionally direct performance that captures John’s heart as well as his music.
Another thing that helps “Rocketman” transcend the cliches is that, let’s face it, the music is great. Elton John has been so ubiquitous for so long, from his ‘70s glory days through “The Lion King” soundtrack and “Will & Grace” cameos, that it’s easy to forget how much songs like “Your Song,” “Daniel” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” have been a part of our lives. It would be easy to say “The Bitch Is Back,” as the first song on the soundtrack repeats, but really he never left.
Opened Friday, May 31, in theaters everywhere. Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content. Running time: 121 minutes.