A more-than-honorable attempt to energize the played-out music biopic subgenre through pure energy and a willingness to turn hard into the skid of its subject’s personality and style, the often-terrific Rocketman still can’t fully escape the gravitational pull of the standard structure imposed on all these movies. Like Straight Out of Compton and Bohemian Rhapsody before it, Rocketman is a byproduct of living legends deciding to set down their own version of the story before history has a chance to weigh in. Rocketman ends up being an odd little mixture, somehow simultaneously out-of-control excessive and safely ensconced behind formula.
Now available on home video, Rocketman is the life story of Reginald White, aka Sir Elton John, as approved and supervised by producer Sir Elton John. So how does Elton John view Elton John? Rocketman doesn’t have much of a take on John beyond the point it makes early and often that underneath the glammed-out, hard-rocking, harder-partying superstar was a shy gay lad who affected a devil-may-care attitude on stage to compensate for his crippling shyness and need for love, trading out human connection in favor of the sweet numbness of drugs and the adulation of millions for his music.
And what music. Screenwriter Lee Hall (who wrote Billy Elliott but also the Cats movie) and Dexter Fletcher (who you know as a director for Eddie the Eagle and ghost-directing Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer fucked off, and who you know as an actor for 90% of all British films ever made [the other 10% feature Jason Flemying]) had the masterstroke of involving John’s music not just as performance numbers (i.e. in the studio, on stage, etc.) but as big bombastic MUSICAL numbers, in which reality flies away and the whole world belts out the lyrics and dances in time.
So “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is staged as a window-shattering pub brawl that spills onto the streets with Taron Egerton as Elton serving as ringmaster and conductor of the mayhem. “Crocodile Rock” rocks so hard that an audience literally levitates, while “Rocket Man” climaxes with Egerton jetting off into the sky. “Pinball Wizard” is pitched as a coked-up freak-out, while “Honky Cat” is a swank, gleefully ersatz stroll through the high life as John and his lover/manager John Reid (Richard Madden, with the brogue at full blast) toast to the excesses of their new luxurious life together. And “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is first crooned not by John, but by his erstwhile long-time songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) as he laments the deep strains to the bond between the two men.
Egerton, primarily known for the Kingsman franchise (in which John himself made a baffling, extended cameo), pours himself body and soul into each and every song. We may see ‘better’ performances this year, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine we’ll see a harder working actor. Egerton throws himself into the excesses of John’s flamboyant persona, and he’s thankfully fearless when it comes to John’s sexuality, a welcome relief given how skittish mainstream cinema can still be with regards to this subject matter. As far as the standard biopic material goes, Egerton’s best material is in how he plays off Bell as Taupin, the movie opting to depict John and Taupin’s bond as the great love that could not be, the tormenting ‘what if’ that drives John to seek love from other, more mercenary sources.
But as game as Egerton is, Elton John comes across as something of a passenger in the movie about Elton John. Rocketman uses John’s stint in rehab as a framing device, intermittently returning to a support group where John lounges in a bedazzled, be-winged stage outfit relaying his life story and owning up to his faults and missteps. Yet the film never digs into the meat of any of those faults and missteps, instead presenting John as a passive witness to both fame and self-destruction. Instead, John moves along rails (those he doesn’t snort, anyway) from one drunken, pilled-up low-point to the next. The last stretch of the film threatens to become downright boring as the music dies away while John bottoms out again and again.
This is where the ‘writing his own legend’ aspect starts to become circumspect. I’m not challenging Elton John’s version of these events, but they are clearly his version of events, and at times Rocketman plays distressingly like the man is running down a list of scores he needs to settle. I don’t know what John Reid was like in real life, but as portrayed by Madden in this film, he’s so nakedly evil he may as well be a gay Scottish Terminator. Per Rocketman, Reid cornered John at a particularly vulnerable moment, plied him with coke and booze and promises of love, seduced him into a lifestyle of wanton excess and debauchery and then proceeded to bleed him dry through a grueling performance schedule that left John zonked out almost completely, all without a single moment of sincere affection or actual emotional connection.
And Reid still gets off better than either of Elton John’s parents (Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh) who are goddamn Dementor-level in their single-minded commitment to being The Worst at every possible opportunity, borderline caricatures of ‘parents who don’t get it’ without so much as a second’s worth of empathy spared their way. And, hey, if they really were the cartoons of homophobic, money-grubbing, affection-hording dickwads that are portrayed in this film, then fuck them and good on John for breaking free. But it makes for lousy, repetitive storytelling as John reaches out and gets kicked down, reaches out and gets kicked down, on endless repeat.
That feeling carries Rocketman through to the very end. It’s not enough for Elton John to literally dance out of rehab, the movie also needs to include multiple blocks of text to remind you that John also went on to found an AIDS charity and also also he did eventually find love. I’m surprised the end credit don’t feature narration where he runs down the numbers on how successful The Lion King soundtrack was.
But I tell you, man, every time the music starts up it’s easy to forget these concerns and give yourself over to the spectacle of it all. Fletcher turns out to have a keen eye for staging and shooting high-energy dance numbers, and the riotous, camp aesthetic of John’s stage persona empowers the film to go whole-hog without worrying about whether a particular image or sequence is ‘realistic’ or not. Rocketman was shot by George Richmond, who also lensed the Kingsman movies, and the big musical numbers have the same kinetic, just-barely-controlled free-for-all momentum as the action scenes in those films. The Blu-ray comes with a “Skip to the Songs” mode that I’ve been playing with while I write this review, and it’s easy to get sucked into the film’s poppy flow, Egerton’s performance, and the innate power and beauty of that music, forgetting everything else.
Look, Walk Hard should have smothered this genre to death over a decade when it flayed open its every convention and roasted them over an open flame. But if they insist on making more of these (and they will) I hope more filmmakers take the big swings that Fletcher took here and tried to tailor the work to reflect the personality and style of their subject. When you have music this good as a spine, and performances this strong as an engine, why not go wild with it and try to use the medium to capture/say something about the artist in question?
Ultimately Rocketman only gets halfway there, confined as I think it is by the need to also function as the ‘official’ Elton John movie. But those moments where it connects and comes to glorious life are more than worth waiting through the more by-the-number material.