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ROCKETMANAnyone expecting Rocketman–a film about the life and times of Elton John, executive produced by Elton John and produced by his husband David Furnish—to be a rock star’s vanity project, will be disabused of that notion in the dramatic musical’s opening scene. That’s when Elton (Taron Egerton), arrestingly attired in a skintight, bright orange jumpsuit with feathered wings and topped off with devil horns and rhinestone, heart-shaped glasses, bursts into what is unmistakably a 12-step meeting, sits down, and confesses to a long list of addictions. No, Rocketman is not a vanity project; it’s an anti-vanity project, a lacerating portrait of the artist as a young, self-loathing man. It is a movie that defies expectations, revealing the emptiness and inner turmoil hidden beneath such a glittering career.

It’s a balancing act for director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle and Bryan Singer’s replacement on Bohemian Rhapsody), screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, both stage and screen), and a game cast led by Egerton to put across an often scabrous story while offering eye-popping entertainment built out of John’s deep catalog. For the most part, Rocketman succeeds brilliantly, frank in its depiction of its lonely, needy, and sometimes monstrous protagonist but buoyed along by its incandescent production numbers. Regardless of how well it does or doesn’t do in its original theatrical life, expect the movie to have a brilliant second career as a sing-along—it’s just built that way.

The boy Reg Dwight (nine-year-old Matthew Illesley and 14-year-old Kit Connor) is caught between Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), his narcissistic mother, and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), the father’s whose love he craves and who lets him down at every turn with his cold indifference. Heady success comes early to the young man now called Elton John, but the pressure of success, poor romantic choices, and the constraints remaining closeted at a time when publicly declaring oneself gay is considered a career killer, don’t just keep his feet on the ground, his problems threaten to drag him under it. From the outside looking in at his spectacular rise, Rocketman could almost be an Icarus story where Elton soars so high his wings melt. But on the inside, he is still just Reg, looking for unconditional love, something he only finds it with his grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, cinema’s original Billy Elliot) and they are not enough.

Anyone looking for a traditional biopic is likely to be disappointed by Rocketman. This is not that. John’s great band of the ‘70s—bassist Dee Murray, guitarist Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson, and percussionist Ray Cooper—is nameless and pretty much faceless in the film. His producer, Gus Dudgeon, is not a character nor are many of his famous collaborators with the exception of Taupin and his “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” duet partner Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon). The emphasis is on the personal and the effect is expressionistic and sometimes surreal with John’s famous tunes advancing the story and the history of his ‘70s era career told in the lovingly reproduced costumes that evolve from a dorky overalls number John wears in his America debut at LA’s famed Troubadour to his sparkly LA Dodgers’ “uniform,” satin shorts, sequined jumpsuits, and Elizabethan drag. His stage wear grows bolder and bolder even as he struggles in the strictures of the closet.

The supporting cast is excellent, down to the smallest roles, but this is a movie that rests on Egerton’s performance. The actor who rose to fame in Rocketman producer Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service as a guttersnipe who transforms into an elegant covert agent effects an even more startling metamorphosis here. He becomes Elton John, inhabiting both the quivering mass of man behind the curtain and the larger-than-life, charismatic superstar capable of holding the rapt attention of an arena full of fans. And unlike Bohemian Rhapsody where Rami Malek lip synced to Freddie Mercury’s vocals, Egerton makes the transformation complete, his own voice replacing John’s on all those familiar songs. It is a dazzling turn in a film that burnishes Elton John’s legacy by insisting on his fragile humanity rather than as his status as a musical icon. –Pam Grady

Bonus feature:

The film gets at Elton John’s talent for looking at a set of lyrics and being able to compose the music to complement those words. In this video from 1971, he talks about his method as he works on “Tiny Dancer”: