Rocketman review: Elton John movie a glorious musical journey

A long, long time coming, the movie isn't that deep but has fun honoring the legendary musician's gift -- his song.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
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Sean Keane
3 min read

Taron Egerton takes off as Elton John in Rocketman.

David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

Hot on the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody's box office and Oscars success comes another musical biopic packed with glorious chart-topping hits: Rocketman, diving into the life and decades-long career of flamboyant rock legend Elton John. 

Directed by Dexter Fletcher, who shepherded the troubled Bohemian Rhapsody over the finish line, Rocketman has been in the works for nearly two decades. It quickly establishes itself less as a biopic than a musical filtered through Elton's recollections of his very beige suburban London childhood, contrasted with a rise to fame marked by spectacular outfits and cocaine-fueled parties.

Rocketman comes out in the US this Friday, May 31. It's out now in the UK and Australia. 

Taron Egerton, whom you might know as the star of the hyper-violent Kingsman movies, won't go breaking your heart with his near perfect mirroring of Elton's voice -- you'll forget you aren't hearing the legendary musician himself as a non-stop hit parade punctuates the drama. Beyond the iconic sequined jackets and high-heeled boots, he's got the mannerisms down and ages realistically thanks to some exceptional makeup.


Elton's family members plays a big part, but aren't well-developed characters. 

David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

Each song -- from Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting) to I'm Still Standing -- is presented in a visually distinct way, with some kicking in unexpectedly. It's an exceptional musical set of greatest hits that'll grab even casual fans, with superb fresh mixes from music director Giles Martin (the son of Beatles producer George Martin).

There are lots of musical montages as Elton transitions between major life events, and they would get repetitive if they weren't so delightful to watch. They're loud and colorful, with the dynamic camerawork injecting another layer of excitement and joy.

Amid these thrilling musical moments, the movie traces the journey of musical prodigy Reggie Dwight (played beautifully by Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor before Dwight ages into Egerton) struggling under his strict parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh). The pair is a bit one-note in their cruel dismissiveness of their son's emotional needs, but they're nicely offset by doting grandmother (Gemma Jones) as they drive young Reggie to become Elton John.


Jamie Bell's Bernie Taupin grounds this biopic.

David Appleby/Paramount Pictures

Elton's strong relationship with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) becomes the heart of the movie. Together, Egerton and Bell do much of the movie's emotional heavy lifting -- there's real warmth as their friendship survives the excesses and stresses fame thrusts upon them.

Almost as powerful is Egerton's connection with manager John Reid (played with shark-like guile by Game of Thrones and Bodyguard star Richard Madden). Their first encounters are electric, with the ambitious Reid lifting Elton's spirits in a moment of doubt and loneliness, and ultimately becoming the closest thing the movie has to a villain.

It's also noteworthy that this is the second time Reid's been portrayed by a Game of Thrones alumnus, hard on the heels of Aidan Gillen's turn in Bohemian Rhapsody. Perhaps he'll be played by Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran) in a Michael Flatley biopic someday?


There are plenty of fabulous outfits on display.

Gavin Bond/Paramount Pictures

Rocketman sticks closely to the usual music biopic formula, leaving us with a sense Elton had a pretty smooth rise from humble beginnings to fame and fortune. In fact, he used drugs and alcohol to numb inescapable emotional pain, then pushed everyone away in the movie's darkest hour.

This film doesn't dive into these challenges enough for them to feel meaningful -- it rushes through the bad times, with musical punctuation adding levity and flamboyance. One long segment without music ends up feeling heavy because we've been conditioned to expect the jukebox to keep playing, and the recurring image of Elton looking in the mirror as he faces his inner demons is overused.

In the end, however, Rocketman hints at how Elton John ends up still standing. It's a story of a true survivor, with moments that'll leave you feeling like a little kid.

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Originally published May 23.