It’s hard to think of a portrayal of artists at work less invested in the myth of creative struggle. Bernie produces lyrics by the bushel, Elton has tunes by the bucketful, and the resulting hits make both men insanely rich before either turns 30. The trouble, for Elton, is what follows from that success, as his fame exacerbates the unhealed wounds of childhood.
The main plot of “Rocketman” follows a familiar therapeutic loop. We start in rehab, where Elton has arrived in full stage regalia, a bright orange jumpsuit adorned with angel wings and devil horns. (Most of the clothes Egerton is shown wearing are replicas of costumes Elton John actually wore, a feat of costume design by Julian Day that is ostentatious and humble at the same time.) We cycle through early striving and midcareer misery.
Some of that is brought about by John Reid (Richard Madden), a sharp-dressed music-industry sharpie who notices Elton’s talent, appraises his sexual insecurity and finds a way to take advantage of both. His ruthlessness and Elton’s appetites combine to push the singer to the brink of self-destruction, a precondition for the redemption that follows.
Egerton, with what can only be called flamboyant understatement — and also, I suppose, understated flamboyance — in effect plays both the Lady Gaga and the Bradley Cooper parts in a fresh iteration of “A Star Is Born.” His Elton is the hard-living road warrior and the preternaturally gifted ingénue, the sacrificial hero and the plucky survivor, the rock god and the camp icon. The actor delivers a tour de force of self-effacement, a bravura demonstration of borrowed charisma.
Fletcher sometimes overreaches, with respect to both spectacle and storytelling — the choreography can be as confusing as the timeline — but when it’s working “Rocketman” has the earnest, extravagant energy of a Baz Luhrmann movie. That description is, in this context, very much a compliment, since Luhrmann-esque showmanship is just what you want in a movie about Elton John.
The other thing you want is Elton John’s music, a desire that “Rocketman” by turns satisfies, sharpens and frustrates. The songs aren’t quite the way you remember them, and in most cases the new versions are put to effective dramatic use. But they don’t quite stand alone, and they’re unlikely to displace the originals on anyone’s streaming playlist. That’s just fine of course: The point is to spark renewed fondness for those old records, and for the incandescent meteor of a man who made them.
Rated R. Sex, drugs, you know the drill. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute.