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Burning out his fuse up here alone – ‘Rocketman’

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Few cinematic subgenres are as predictable as the musical biopic. We’ve grown accustomed to watching the lives of famous musicians broken down into beats that have been repeated so many times as to become rote – it’s a sort of rock-and-roll lifestyle shorthand. We know how these goes.

That said, that formulaicness hasn’t necessarily prevented these films from succeeding both critically and commercially. Heck, last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” made $900 million at the box office and netted Rami Malek a Best Actor Oscar for playing Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury.

After that kind of run, it’s no surprise that Hollywood would return to the well again, this time with “Rocketman” starring Taron Egerton as Elton John. What is surprising is this: “Rocketman” is a better movie than “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Egerton’s performance as Elton John is better than Malek’s as Freddie Mercury.

Seriously. The movie won’t do nearly the same box office numbers and Egerton won’t get a sniff of the awards-show attention that Malek received, but that doesn’t change the fact that both are better.

They’re better because “Rocketman” – directed by Dexter Fletcher (the same guy who cleaned up Bryan Singer’s mess on “Bohemian Rhapsody”) – leans into the inherent weirdness of rock stardom in a way we don’t often see, embracing the flamboyance of its subject through a liberal dusting of full-blown musical numbers and magical realism. When you’re telling the story of a provocatively stylish and over-the-top icon, you’ve got to do it in a provocatively stylish and over-the-top fashion.

(Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if in a movie about a singer, your lead performer, you know … sings.)

Young Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley as a boy, Kit Connor as a teen) lives on the outskirts of London with his disinterested mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard, “A Dog’s Way Home”) and his doting grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones, “Patrick”). His father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh, TV’s “Wanderlust”) is distant both literally and figuratively – he’s away much of the time serving in the Royal Air Force while also refusing to share any sort of affection with his son.

At a young age, Reggie displays prodigious musical ability, able to recreate songs he hears on the piano instantly from memory. A scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music puts his life on a path toward music – a path that is accelerated when young Reggie discovers rock and roll.

In the early 1960s, a now-grown Reggie – now calling himself Elton John (Taron Egerton, “Robin Hood”) – is playing piano for a bar band called Bluesology when he is discovered by a record producer and put into contact with a lyricist named Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, “Skin”). It’s a match made in heaven as Elton and Bernie begin churning out brilliant pop songs.

It’s a meteoric rise – one that comes with the standard trappings of too-fast success. Elton soon meets John Reid (Richard Madden, TV’s “Bodyguard”), a music manager who captures Elton’s romantic attention while also pulling him into a business relationship. He commits fully to his flamboyant performance persona while coming to terms with his own sexuality.

But as Elton John is becoming the most popular rock star on the planet, he’s also spiraling out of control. He’s swept up in a wave of addiction – booze, drugs, sex, food, you name it – and he finds himself pushing away those who truly care about him while also clinging to those who are using him for their own selfish reasons.

Trapped in an ivory tower of his own making, Elton has to come to grips with the reality of his situation. There must be a reckoning – one that he can only reach of his own volition. And it is within that reckoning that he can finally know who truly loves him.

“Rocketman” plays it fast and loose with the timeline, using a framing device revolving around a group therapy session. It’s quite clever, actually, allowing for a degree of flexibility with regards to the sequence of events while also playing with the notion of memories as combinations of fact and feeling rather than perfect recountings of events.

That flexibility is most readily apparent in the musical numbers. Because you better believe there are some musical numbers. From the top – a take on “The Bitch is Back” set in a mostly grayed-out 1950s suburb – it’s clear that this is not a concert film-style biopic. The songs of Elton John are incorporated fully into the narrative itself, rather than existing separately; even the performance scenes are allowed to be something else – something more – than mere concert recreations.

There are a couple of sequences that are pure dynamite – “Crocodile Rock” and the title song are standouts – but even the lesser lights are still pretty great. It’s an across-the-board buy-in to the notion that Elton John was somehow “more than” – and it works.

And now we talk about Taron Egerton, because he’s a huge part of why. He’s legitimately great in this part; I honestly doubted his capability when I heard the casting, but he absolutely crushes – not least because he actually sings. Yeah – that’s his voice you’re hearing. He’s not Elton John – because who is? – but he’s tremendous nonetheless. And he captures the fractured vulnerability beneath the brightly-colored peacocking; we never lose sight of young Reggie Dwight even as Elton John strives so hard to hide him. The rest of the cast is wonderful – Bell has a lovely chemistry with Egerton while Madden is just the worst in the best way – but really, this movie’s all about Elton.

“Rocketman” follows the formula, to be sure – structurally, this is more or less a straightforward biopic. But stylistically, it’s something else. That dichotomy is just one more homage to the film’s subject, a musical icon whose impact on pop culture cannot be overstated. Just a delightful time at the movies.

[5 out of 5]

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