It’s always been kind of amazing to me that there was a point in history where Elton John was the biggest rock star in the world. Not because of the music, I certainly see why that would be big, but it’s amazing that for a period of time in the 1970s the picture of rock superstardom was an overweight bespectacled ginger homosexual dude who played piano ballads while wearing strange outfits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all, in fact it’s sort of a testament to his talents: this was a dude who did not skate by on his looks. But as far as Elton’s music goes he’s never really been my favorite artist. When I was a kid he was still sort of around and would show up at strange moments to do stuff like eulogize Princess Diana or perform random duets with Eminem but he was ultimately an oldies act that I didn’t have time for. I didn’t really get into him when I finally did start exploring classic rock either, and I think that largely has to do with his choice of instrument. To teenage me rock and roll was defined by one thing: guitars, preferably electric guitars, and the longer the solos were the better. I could find time for David Bowie, but Elton John was a step too far away from what really seemed like “rock” to me, hell I still haven’t really come around on Billy Joel. Instead Elton John was someone I only came to like pretty late in life when I really started to expand the music I was into and started putting together just how many of the catchy songs I’d been hearing over the years were by him. I’m still not a huge fan by any means and some of his songs like “Crocodile Rock” still don’t do it for me, but I am interested enough in him to have been pretty interested in the new biopic Rocketman.
Rocketman begins with a rather surreal scene of Elton John (Taron Egerton) walking into an rehab group therapy session wearing one of his signature wacky costumes and begins to tell his life story to the group. This acts as something of a framing story throughout and every time we cut back to it he’s stripped off part of his costume. From there we get a more or less chronological telling of the musician’s life from his childhood struggles with his father (Steven Mackintosh) and mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), to meeting his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his becoming a superstar while battling addiction and an emotionally abusive relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden).
This film has the immense benefit of opening less than a year after the worldwide blockbuster success of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. This is fortunate firstly because it shows the public is primed for a biographical account of a gay British music icon from the 70s and secondly it’s beneficial because its close proximity to that movie invites comparisons between the two and given how lackluster that movie was these comparisons are rather flattering. Critics hate Bohemian Rhapsody because it’s a movie that flagrantly ignores several decades of advice critics have been giving filmmakers about musical biopics and just shamelessly leans into each and every biopic cliché in the clumsiest way possible (a problem that may be less apparent to the general public, who hasn’t sat through every damn one of these movies). Rocketman, by contrast, carefully avoids at least some of the pitfalls which that leaped into. For one thing, the film doesn’t feel sanitized like Rhapsody did. It isn’t hesitant to show the extent of Elton John’s drug use and to make him look like kind of an asshole at certain points while also exploring what’s leading him to behave that way. It also isn’t as squeamish about his homosexuality (even if the film’s one sex scene has a Call Me By Your Name style cutaway), and Taron Egerton also sings his own songs and gives a more well-rounded performance than Rami Malek, whose Oscar winning performance did not really impress me beyond the visual imitation of Freddie Mercury.
Of course the film’s most radical difference from Bohemian Rhapsody and musical biopics in general is that it actually takes the format of a jukebox musical rather than a straight biography with various fantasy sequences in which people (and not necessarily just Elton) “burst into song” and perform Elton John songs with thematic similarities to what’s going on. I say these are fantasy sequences, but in many ways the film doesn’t actually treat them like that. Director Dexter Fletcher never “snaps back to reality” so to speak after one of these performances are done, they just kind of “magic realism” their way into the movie and aren’t commented upon. The film also makes no attempt to present any of these songs in their historical chronology. For instance the film shows Elton John playing “Crocodile Rock” at his first American performance at the Troubadour even though that song was actually from his sixth album and more than likely wasn’t written at that point. This kind of messing around with facts got Bohemian Rhapsody into a lot of trouble given that it presented itself as a straightforward biography but it feel more natural here given much of the movie is presented as a sort of fantastical musical and that the more salient facts seem to be accurate.
Of course the decision to make this a musical does have a couple of drawbacks. For one thing the whole conceit seems to be based in the notion that Elton John music reflected his personal life, which would seem to be a rather dubious notion given that he didn’t write his own lyrics and generally seem rather impersonal. At times the film does seem to be stretching a little to recontextualize some of these songs, like when “Tiny Dancer” is turned into a song about Elton’s loneliness in L.A. while Taupin is off chasing tail and the movie sort of contorts itself at one point to make “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” fit a conversation. In addition to that, the musical motif is in some ways a bit of a smokescreen. The usual musical biopic clichés are still there under the seemingly unique wrapping. This is after all the story of a bright eyed musician who shocks the record company with his talents and shoots to superstardom before almost losing everything to addiction and hedonism until he enters rehab and emerges victorious. It’s kind of the same story that damn near every rock star has and to an extent cliché is inevitable, but unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, this movie smooths out those edges and flows more naturally. It actually feels like it’s put some thought behind what the rockstar life is like and isn’t just presenting the material out of some obligation to formula.
I do think that this movie is the beneficiary of lowered expectations to some extent. It might try a couple of new things but it’s certainly not going full I’m Not There and really innovating with the form. In fact I suspect that this kind of biopic by way of jukebox musical format is a bit more common on Broadway in shows like “Jersey Boys.” However, the fact of the matter is that I’ve never really been as allergic to the musical biopic format as some critics and wouldn’t even have been all that mad at Bohemian Rhapsody if not for the fact that people were giving it goddamn Oscars. So really, taking that usual format and using it in a way that has some actual thought behind it rather than half-assedly going through the motions probably is enough to sell me on a project. If this had only been about a band or artist that means more to me this might have even been a slam dunk, but as it stands it’s a solid movie that will serve the fans of the artist well.
***1/2 out of Five