The first time we see Elton John in Rocketman, he's wearing a spangly red devil costume with sharp horns and enormous wings. It's one of the many glorious, glittery things we see him wear in the movie, although on this occasion, he isn't dressed for a concert. It's around 1990, and Elton, played by Taron Egerton, is attending a group therapy session. He may be one of the world's most successful rock stars, but he's also being eaten alive by sex addiction and substance abuse, and also by feelings of abandonment that go back to his childhood.
No one who's seen a movie about a popular musician will be surprised by any of this, or by the way Rocketman unfolds its story as a series of extended flashbacks. But even within that familiar framework, the movie finds surprising ways to buck convention. The colors are bright and kaleidoscopic, but the tone is beautifully modulated: The operatic excesses are balanced by a powerful sense of melancholy. The group-therapy framing device works especially well: The sight of Elton in all that defiant plumage is ludicrous, marvelous and strangely poignant — all words you might apply to the movie itself.
As directed by Dexter Fletcher from a script by Lee Hall, Rocketman isn't just a musician's biopic; it's a biographical musical. Conceived as a surreal song-and-dance spectacular, it's a delirious blur of truth and artifice, convention and daring. John's greatest hits — from "Your Song" and "Tiny Dancer" to "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "I'm Still Standing" — are treated not just as career milestones but as full-blown numbers. The first one is "The Bitch Is Back," repurposed here as an anthem of boyhood defiance for Elton, born Reginald Dwight, as he grows up in 1950s London with his unhappily married parents. Bryce Dallas Howard plays his mother with a series of exhausted eye-rolls, even when Reggie begins to show signs of prodigious musical talent.
Reggie grows up in a flash, rebrands himself as Elton John and meets his lifelong collaborator, the lyricist Bernie Taupin, wonderfully played by Jamie Bell. The movie's most stirring scene finds Elton improvising at the piano, and the immortal melody to "Your Song" comes pouring out of his fingertips. It's his song of unrequited love for Bernie, who will stand by him through thick and thin, even after Elton falls into a toxic relationship with a manipulative manager, John Reid, played by Richard Madden of Game of Thrones fame.