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'Rocketman' review: Untraditional Elton John biopic is flawed, but entertaining

Taron Egerton as Elton John in "Rocketman."

Taron Egerton as Elton John in "Rocketman." Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures / David Appleby

PLOT The turbulent life of pop superstar Elton John.

CAST Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard

RATED R (language and sexuality)

LENGTH 2:01

BOTTOM LINE An uneven but enjoyable jukebox musical. Opens May 31.

Elton John’s American concert debut, on Aug. 25, 1970, is one of the most memorable moments in “Rocketman,” Dexter Fletcher’s film about the iconic glitter-rocker. While pounding out his hit “Crocodile Rock” at the legendary Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles, Elton (Taron Egerton) and his audience literally float into the air, transported by the rhythmic energy and yearning chords. It’s a inventive way to convey how it must have felt to witness the birth of a future star.

Just one problem: Elton didn’t play that song.

Does it matter that he wouldn’t even write “Crocodile Rock” until two years later? Not to Fletcher, and apparently not even to John, an executive producer. Unlike “Bohemian Rhapsody,” last year’s hit drama about Queen frontman Freddie Mercury (which Fletcher partly directed), “Rocketman” is not a traditional biopic. It’s a freewheeling, fanciful jukebox musical that focuses on the troubled childhood, early struggles and nearly fatal level of stardom that defined John's life until he pulled off an astounding midlife comeback in the '80s (barely shown) and went sober in the 1990s. An uneven combination of strong performances, an insightful script (by Lee Hall) and iffy musical numbers, “Rocketman” is inventive and enjoyable, even when it teeters unsteadily on the platform heels of its own ambition.

When “Rocketman” is on, it’s really on. It’s fun to watch John’s hungry years: His move to London; his introduction to Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who would become his lyricist for the next 50 years; his struggle to confront his sexuality. Richard Madden (HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) plays John Reid, John's manager and first real relationship, with a compelling combination of sexual charisma and icy business acumen. As for Egerton, he’s rock-solid, capable of belting out challenging songs like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (with its sudden falsetto chorus) while also making us believe that this coke-fueled, vastly wealthy rock star is still a wounded little boy at heart.

On the other hand, “Rocketman” doesn’t seem much interested in rock and roll itself. To put us in the 1970s, Fletcher relies mostly on Julian Day’s costumes (many of John's jaw-droppers are here, from his furry-shouldered leisure suit to his disco-Dodgers uniform) but never truly delves into the weird, wasted vibe of the decade. As for the music industry, it’s represented by the crass music publisher Dick James (Stephen Graham) and the Troubadour’s wondrously cheesy owner, Doug Weston (Tate Donovan), both of whom nearly steal the movie.

By the time “Rocketman” screeches suddenly to a conclusion — he’s sober, fun’s over — you’ll have learned to stop demanding more than this movie can give you. The best way to approach “Rocketman” is to take it as it is: Deeply flawed, eager to please and always entertaining.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong date for Elton John's sobriety. John has been sober since the 1990s.

FOUR MORE

Glam-rock, personified by Elton John, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and others, reigned supreme during the 1970s, yet for all its visual flair it inspired only a handful of movies. Here are four of the best:

THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974): If ELO and Alice Cooper ever teamed up to produce Goethe’s "Faust," they couldn’t do better than this campy rock-opera from Brian De Palma. Jessica Harper plays Phoenix, a budding pop singer; Paul Williams is Swan, a satanic music impresario.

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) The film version of the London stage musical, starring Tim Curry as a cross-dressing scientist in fishnet stockings, remains the definition of a cult hit. More than 40 years later, audiences around the country still show up for weekly midnight screenings.

VELVET GOLDMINE (1998) Todd Haynes’ work of glam-rock fan-fiction imagines an artistic and carnal relationship between Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, channeling David Bowie) and Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor, basically playing Iggy Pop). Look for mime artist Lindsay Kemp, who mentored a young Bowie, in a small role.

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (2001) John Cameron Mitchell’s film, based on his Off-Broadway musical, took glam-rock’s androgyny to an extreme: Its hero is a genderqueer singer who undergoes a botched sex-change operation. Though the stage play had been a smash, the movie bombed and remains mostly a cult item. — RAFER GUZMAN

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