Plug your ears to Elton John’s unmistakably classic songs, and squint until you can no longer make out Taron Egerton’s uncannily good performance, and you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s a few months ago, and you’re watching Bohemian Rhapsody. This isn’t to say that Rocketman is derivative of that film (capable director Dexter Fletcher helmed a good part of both), but that both films, in spite of the most capable casts and direction, cannot hide their industry-standard biopic tags in the areas not cloaked in the still-charismatic pull of the original source.

If one seeks to convey the timeless stage presence of an Elton John or a Freddie Mercury to a modern audience, there’s no need to do so with slick editing, Broadway backup dancers and re-recorded cover versions that seem both to iron out all the imperfections and sift out much of the identity; the real footage, the actual records, are still there, always at our fingertips in our media-rich lives. What need have we to celebrate their legacy with talented strangers? If skillful interpretations of the hits won’t thrill, then perhaps we can look forward to the revelations the film promises: the childhood struggles, the glimpses of pure hedonism from the height of ‘70s stardom.

Does Rocketman illuminate the faults, failings and triumphs of the man? Does it bring the excesses of the time back to raunchy, glittery life? To a certain, though mostly shallow extent, yes. Egerton makes a grand entrance as the sequined, devil-costumed divo barging through the doors of what’s revealed to be a rehab facility, where much of the narrative unspools from his scattered recollections from the chair of a support-group circle. What follows is mostly a series of jukebox trifles—a Glee-esque run-through of the familiar plot points of “talent discovery,” “first big break,” “relationship tensions,” “hubris/betrayal,” “hitting rock-bottom” and “back on top.” As in Rhapsody, there is little regard for the flow of history; late-career hits show up in scenes ostensibly depicting Elton’s early bar-room gigs; “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” takes us through the ‘50s and into the ‘60s, with a non-sequitur hippie/Bollywood dance routine thrown in for whatever reason. To that, many a fan of this sort of thing might well say, “Who cares?” and this sentiment must be shared by the 90 percent of critics who’ve heaped disproportionate praise on what amounts to another fleeting, ephemeral, tribute to someone else’s talent.

There are, admittedly, moments of real gravity; scenes of Elton coming to terms with his father’s obvious disinterest in his eldest son in favor of a second family registers real pain, as do sequences depicting the effects of substance abuse for both the user and loved ones. These, however, are dressings for the sing-along main course. A depiction of an overdose as a dance sequence feels like it could be a bold, strange moment, but comes off as stagy and frivolous; Elton singing “The Bitch is Back” as a duet with his schoolboy self feels like the sort of Ellen-show shenanigans one might see on daytime TV. Attempts at getting past Bohemian Rhapsody’s PG-13 version of gay love in favor of something more audacious and risk-taking do not change the overall safe feel of the picture (though they do illustrate what sort of thing the critics and buzz-outlets of today consider “groundbreaking”).

Finding out exactly what Rocketman is and is not beforehand may help the viewer better appreciate it. This is no biopic, nor an entirely immersive impression of Elton John and the world he and his fame inhabited. It does have a positive message for us about getting help for our problems, in coming to terms with the past and ourselves. It points us toward what makes Elton still so riveting as a performer and public figure, and it will no doubt boost his Spotify listens. But those waiting for the truly outrageous, flawed, taboo-breaking, gritty story to actually be made (and that this one purports to be), one will have to wait until all the principal figures are long dead, or until we again enter an era such as the ‘70s, when Hollywood films had the gall (or even the ability) to shock. Until then, all of this full-scale raiding of the 20th century will seem like a theater-kid reenactment of a party that none of us were cool enough to attend.

{2 out of 5 stars}

**This review first appeared in print on page 9 of issue #293 (June 5 – 19, 2019)**