I would call Rocketman the best pop star biopic of the 21st Century and I would mean it with all my heart and soul, but for one caveat: I don't think "biopic" is the right word. Oh, it's got the structure: we see how little Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley as a boy, Kit Connor as a young adolescent) suffered through a hideous family life with an openly contemptuous single mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), turning to music as his outlet; how Reggie grew up to young adulthood (in the form of Taron Egerton) and decided to try making songwriting a career, picking up the stage name "Elton John" along the way and turning it into his legal name, embracing all of the drugs and alcohol that nigh-immediate superstardom could buy as a way of medicating away his sense of loneliness and lovelessness, and finally crawling out of his hole after nearly killing himself. It's got the "greatest hits" moments - indeed, it has almost nothing else. But it's not a "biopic." It's more like a memoir - instead of having the facts of the matter recounted for us (truthfully or not), it's a wholly subjective inside-out story that tells us basically from the very start that facts are simply not going to be a concern, so don't bother looking for them. It is not "the story of Elton John", it's "the story of what it feels like being Elton John".  I'm not sure that the real world Elton John (getting an executive producer credit) actually did anything besides give permission and hand-pick Egerton to play himself, but he is certainly the film's auteur.

This ends up working out extremely well. By telling us within the first three minutes that what we're about to watch is wholly subjective and completely indifferent to actual chronology, Rocketman frees itself from trying to tell a story, and instead keeps walloping us with one affective moment after another. The thing is, basically, an Elton John jukebox musical; several major songs, and a couple minor ones, are trotted out not because they were his big hit single from August 1973 or whatever, but because something about the lyrics or music gives voice to the feelings Elton feels at various developments in his life between the late 1960s and the early 1990s. The story isn't about his rise and fall as a celebrity, something the film treats as a fait accompli; it is instead about the three people in his life he wanted to love him who didn't (his mom, his poisonous manager and first lover John Reid (Richard Madden), and most tragically, his straight songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who the film presents as Elton's one and only friend and soulmate, emotionally critical to Elton's life while being romantically unattainable) and how not getting that love made him do unbelievably stupid things to himself, maybe to stop feeling pain, maybe so he'd just die already.

Not a glamorous vanity project, then, thought it incongruously ends that way, with some of the most ridiculously bad "what happened next" title cards I've ever seen in a movie. It's actually kind of a downer throughout much of its running time, drawing from the sturdy tradition of British character dramas in which people remain largely buttoned-up while being miserable: director Dexter Fletcher and cinematographer George Richmond frame everything in hostile, contrasty browns, and Egerton perfecting a sullen, inward hangdog vibe that does excellent work breathing life into the script's conceit that "Elton John" is the happy extrovert that embittered, caustic Reg Dwight wishes he could be, and is able to put on and take off like one of the singer's ludicrous costumes. Into this grey sludge, the film's copious musical numbers set to Egerton's covers of Elton John songs (not a single one of them played in its entirety, annoyingly) serve a bolts of life and energy, even the sad and heavy ones; the impression one gets is that music is something like one more narcotic in Elton's life, giving him something to do that will distract from his miserable brain, with the film's argument being that this is the one that's actually healthy and good. The conflation of realism and musical frivolity feels extremely Alan Parker-ish, and it's gratifying to learn that Fletcher's entry into cinema was as a child actor in Parker's first film, the realist-fantastic Bugsy Malone from 1976. It seems to much to much to assume that ten-year-old Fletcher absorbed lessons from Parker, knowing that sometime in his career, he'd be called upon to use a version of that same aesthetic; but there's definitely a family resemblance between Rocketman that film, or Parker's other realist musicals, like Pink Floyd: The Wall and The Commitments.

At any rate, the musical numbers - only one of which is a stock biopic "in the recording studio" moment, and one of which is a "playing music onstage" moment; every other one serves a storytelling function - are clearly the thing that makes Rocketman what it is. It's not a Mamma Mia!-esque singalong, any more than it's a standard biopic: the songs have been adjusted from the original recordings, in some cases quite substantially, to fit the mood of the film's lost, angry Elton in the moments when those songs come into his brain. It's a character study hiding in the clothes of a rollicking crowd-pleaser; any concern that this would have more than strictly superficial resemblance to last year's dire Bohemian Rhapsody, which Fletcher salvaged (without credit) after Bryan Singer was fired, is banished within minutes and despite the number of ways in which it's presumably possible to compare the two, I wasn't tempted to for a moment. They're not playing the same sport, and even if they were, Rocketman is a major-leaguer while Bohemian Rhapsody is a helpless last-place kid's T-ball team.

To be sure, it's a little schlocky and self-aggrandising in places; it's terribly-edited more or less throughout, though the musical numbers are generally much better than the dialogue scenes (this is the difference between the bad editing being an annoyance instead of a fatal flaw); Howard's performance as a terrible mom is big and campy in a film that is somewhat anxious to strip away all the kitsch and camp from John's persona. And, yeah, y'know, it's about a pop star who got famous, started fucking the wrong people, and couldn't stop putting shit up his nose: we've all seen this film, and we've seen it multiple times. Yet that critical shift in emphasis - embracing subjectivity and dropping any pretense to telling a proper history in favor of a series of overheated diary entries - is enough to make all of those tired biopic tropes feel... not fresh, but given new purpose like they haven't had in an extremely long time. Rocketman isn't perfect, but it is literally the best that I can possibly imagine a film of this type possibly being in this day and age.