Following last year’s disappointing and problematic Bohemian Rhapsody, I found it hard to have high expectations for Rocketman. For one, the (uncredited) director of Bohemian Rhapsody, Dexter Fletcher was helming this film. Add that to the fact that I had never really listened to Elton John’s music, outside of a high school band halftime show I was a part of and a girl I had a major crush on really liking “Bennie And The Jets,” and I had no anticipation for this movie. Which is why I’m surprised to say that I loved this movie. Like, really loved it.
Rocketman is, obviously, a biopic about the life and music of Elton John. The music biopic is a genre that has become increasingly formulaic. While I don’t think Rocketman avoids all of the genre’s clichés, it is presented in such a fantastical way that it’s hard to complain. The film begins at a moment of intense emotion and flux in the singer’s life and then backtracks to show us how he got there. This is a tried-and-true narrative device that has drifted into cliché over the years.
Rocketman is a jukebox musical fantasia, packed with wonderfully choreographed and beautifully shot numbers pulled from John’s greatest hits. Songs spring from pivotal moments in John’s life, or so we’re led to believe. There are plenty of montages, of John shopping and accruing gold records as his singles rocket up the charts. And unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman handles John’s homosexuality in a respectful (albeit safe) way. Of course, Elton John is very much alive and served as an executive producer on this film, as well as an adviser to Taron Egerton, the young actor who plays him with gusto. Due to John’s direct involvement, it’s hard to say this is a warts-and-all approach, as moments of John’s self-destructive behavior build to a redemptive conclusion. That said, the overall structure and concept of Rocketman help me overlook this (more on that and the inevitable comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody later).
What really sold me on this film was Egerton. He gives a performance so fraught with thrills, vulnerability, and pathos that it’s hard not to be wowed. Previously best-known for his starring role in the Kingsman action-comedy franchise, Egerton is clearly giving his all here. You can see the effort pouring out of him in what was clearly a physically and emotionally taxing role. That includes doing all his own singing; he doesn’t look or sound exactly like John, which is preferable to him just doing a straight-up impression. He nails the vibe and he has a genuinely appealing onscreen presence.
Fletcher and writer Lee Hall arrange and stage the musical numbers in inventive ways that they seem to mine a whole new meaning out of John’s lyrics. That’s tough, especially given that John’s hits have been staples on radio and in movies since the 1970s. This is especially true of the film’s “Rocket Man” sequence, which flows beautifully and covers so much ground that it’s almost like a short film all its own. The quiet intimacy of seeing John find his way through “Your Song” in a cramped living room is also surprisingly effective. The number for “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” was an early fist-pumping moment, as it showed John’s transition from childhood musical prodigy into high school age rock ‘n’ roller. And an especially inspired moment sees John’s longtime collaborator and close friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) performing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” at a breaking point between the two men. To me, these were the highlights of the film’s musical numbers, but all of the sequences are wonderful.
When we first see John, he’s storming into a group therapy session in full onstage regalia, a storm of feathers and sequins. He seemingly doesn’t want to be there. But while he has your attention, he may as well tell you a little story. Cut to John’s youth, where his childhood self is in full color while the rest of the world is slightly desaturated (the way Fletcher uses color to signify the passage of time is fantastic). He’s a piano prodigy with an emotionally withdrawn, judgmental father (Steven Mackintosh) and a cold, promiscuous mother (Bryce Dallas-Howard). Rocketman hits all the key notes of John’s life: his connection with Taupin in the late 1960s and the seeds of their enduring friendship; the development of his stage-name and trademark style; and his star-making performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Tate Donovan is a joy as Doug Weston, the owner of the legendary nightclub, and made me want to see an entire movie about him and the acts that made their names at the Troubadour in the late 60s and 70s. L.A. is also where John meets his manager John Reid (Richard Madden) and truly dives into a life of rock star debauchery.
Which brings us back to Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s impossible to watch Rocketman and not think of Freddie Mercury — and Rami Malek’s portrayal of him. Both were flashy, gay, and British. Both were musical icons that produced insanely catchy tunes around the same time. Both took on new personas to escape the mundanity of their upbringings. Rocketman is superior to Rhapsody in every way, and that’s due to the creative choices taken with the film.
I have a problem with music biopics in general. If I wanted to see the life of an artist portrayed exactly as it happened, I would watch a documentary. Too often, biopics attempt to tell a true story while distorting events to the point that it is no longer true. I think a great example of a music biopic done right is Ethan Hawke’s Blaze from last year; the film tells the story of Blaze Foley’s life but utilizes the opportunities of the film format to construct a non-chronological portrayal of that story. This is why Rocketman works for me; it’s not a documentary, it’s a fantasy musical. It just so happens to illustrate the life of one of pop music’s biggest stars.