Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Writer: Lee Hall
It doesn’t seem possible to talk about Rocketman without also talking about last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Aside from sharing surface similarities (both films are about legendary glam rock superstars from the 70s and 80s and closeted queer man) and both having been directed by Dexter Fletcher, who took over the Freddie Mercury biopic when its original director was sacked amid allegations of sexual misconduct, it was Bohemian Rhapsody that really drove home for many people what a tired genre the music biopic was. Ever since Walk Hard came out and demonstrated just how predictable and clichéd these movies so often tend to be, it’s been difficult to take many subsequent biopics seriously (with notable exceptions like Straight Outta Compton). Bohemian Rhapsody hit so many of the same typical beats of the genre (the naïve singer, the disapproving family, the ‘one shot’ moment, the cesspit of sex and drugs, the triumphant redemption, etc.) that it bordered on self-parody. Perhaps it’s an inevitable by-product of the fact that most of the great 20th century musicians deemed worthy of receiving the cinematic treatment have tended to live similar lives, but just about every genre has their share of common stories and characteristic tropes to contend with. What made the music biopic seem so banal in comparison is how their stories seldom seem interested in actually saying anything beyond ‘here’s a noteworthy person who lived an interesting life and wrote some good songs that you should listen to on the soundtrack album we’ve compiled’.
That’s where I think this movie differs the most. While it has all the same tropes that I listed earlier as Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman never feels like a film that’s simply going through the motions. Not only does it find new, creative ways of depicting the kinds of features and moments we’ve already seen in countless films of this kind, but it also applies them in service of telling an actual story with something substantive to say. Rocketman isn’t just a film depicting the life and times of Sir Elton John (Taron Egerton); it is on a far deeper level the story of a fundamentally broken man trying to learn to love and accept himself. It is that simple distinction that makes the traditional elements of the music biopic that it employs not clichés, but instead vital ingredients in the story of itself. We get, for example, the disapproving parents in the form of Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), a stiff, stilted and stuck-up soldier who views his son (née Reginald) as little more than a nuisance, and Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard), who clearly loves her son but is so engrossed in her own daily working-class struggles and lack of romantic fulfilment that she appears largely uninterested in the boy’s extraordinary talent and success. Their disapproval and indifference aren’t mere obstacles Reginald Dwight has to overcome in order to become the legend he’s destined to be, they are symbols of the emotionally repressed, sexually conservative, homophobic culture he grew up in and they play significant roles in shaping him into the self-hating, self-destructive man he grows into.
What also distinguishes this film from the usual trend of biopics that came before is the rock ‘n’ roll musical style through which it tells its story. There’s something of the old-fashioned Hollywood musical in the way that it shoots such song and dance sequences as ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)’ and ‘Honky Cat’ from a moderate distance with sinuous movements and few cuts, allowing us to appreciate the intricate staging, flashy choreography and lively performances on display. These sequences were shot with digital technology however, which allows them to pull off some clever effects and tricks with a fluidity that looks positively seamless such as one bit in which Elton literally steps through a door into his past and another where the teenage Elton scrambles through an opening in a fence and emerges as his adult self. The gimmick never gets old because the film often plays around with different stylistic flourishes and moods depending on what feels appropriate to the story. ‘Tiny Dancer’ is shot in an intimate and serene manner like something out of a Robert Altman film while ‘Pinball Wizard’ is a whirlwind of psychedelic close-ups. The dynamic energy of these scenes and the kinetic way they lead into each other is perfectly suited to the movie’s tone as Elton finds himself spiralling further and further into a drugged out haze where he loses all sense of time and geography and finds himself stumbling between disconnected scenes.
For all of the film’s wild set pieces and stylistic impulses, it never loses track of its central thesis. That the movie presents itself so blatantly as a fantasy grants it licence to indulge in ideas and devices that would be immediately dismissed in more conventionally narrated film. The framing device, for instance, whereby Elton ditches a concert in a flamboyant devil outfit, enters a therapy session at a rehab clinic and proceeds to recount his life story might at first appear to be little more than a hackneyed set-up to give the film a conventional form of structure, but I think it only reads that way if you approach the film from the most literal possible perspective. To me it comes across as something more theatrical; Elton is the lead player delivering his monologue and the addicts listening to him are his Greek chorus. Rocketman isn’t supposed to be understood as a documentary account of Sir Elton John’s life; it’s a dramatic reading that’s more interested in uncovering truths than it is in stating facts. The therapy setting is there because it’s a frame of reference that we can easily recognise and understand, one that invites reflection, self-criticism and perspective. The fantasy serves to enable Elton to express the way he sees the world in tangible ways and to have direct dialogues that could never happen in real life with his parents, his long-time collaborator and friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his duplicitous manager and lover John Reid (Richard Madden), and his past self.
Grounding it all is Egerton as Elton, delivering the kind of performance that’s so transparent, full of life and forceful that at times you forget there’s even an actor there. Oftentimes Rocketman feels less like the performance of Elton John’s life than it does the story of Elton himself, as if they somehow convinced a de-aged version of the man himself to relive his most glorious and devastating moments, from defying gravity while singing ‘Crocodile Rock’ at the Troubadour to jumping into a swimming pool in a drunken attempt to kill himself. Egerton is perfectly game for all the film’s outrageous impulses and complements its overall tone in just the right way, acting and switching between the parts of the soulful artist, the outlandish diva and the wretched misfit from scene to scene, walking the fine line between profound seriousness and cheeky self-parody and remaining at all times utterly sincere. He also sells Elton’s sexuality in all the ways Bohemian Rhapsody wouldn’t allow Malek to do as Freddie, both in its affection (including an explicitly gay sex scene, apparently the first by a major Hollywood release) and debauchery. This could have perhaps been explored by the film at greater length and detail the way that Soderbergh did in his Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, but by mainstream Hollywood standards the degree to which Elton’s sexual desires and compulsions are given prominence is almost revelatory.
It seems a little unfair to say that Rocketman is the movie Bohemian Rhapsody should have been considering what two different figures Elton and Freddie were (and especially given how differently their stories ended), but I do think this film is a demonstration of what the latter could have been. It’s a film that understands fully well that the story of an extraordinary man and his music cannot hope to be adequately told through ordinary means. Rocketman instead sets out to tell its story on its own unapologetic terms and you’re either along for the ride or you’re not. The film plainly states its mission statement when it has a musician tell Elton “you gotta kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you wanna be”. This is a movie about how Elton found his true identity for himself by inventing one. It isn’t a story about a ‘real’ person and for that reason could never have been told in a realistic, straightforward way. This movie has far more interesting things on its mind than the greatest hits of Elton John’s life, it has something deep and personal it wants to say about the man whose life inspired it and does so in the way he would himself in all camp and sincerity. The film is unabashedly sentimental, especially in the finale as Elton finally has a heart to heart moment with his inner child, and doesn’t care about coming across as schmaltzy because, in that moment, it’s what we the audience, as well as the character, need.