Had Rocketman not been in development at the time, the success of last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody would – almost certainly – have been enough to greenlight such a project. It is somewhat fitting that in the director’s chair is Dexter Fletcher. Fletcher took over from Bryan Singer to complete then-troubled production on the Queen biopic. Although holding merely an Executive Producer credit for that film, Fletcher’s involvement invites audiences to compare and contrast the two works, particularly given they are both dealing with music icons whose careers overlapped.
So let’s get the key point out of the way at the outset: Rocketman is a very different film from Bohemian Rhapsody. The latter was very much a box-ticking big screen biopic, if, frustratingly, often it rearranged the order of the boxes to be ticked. Complete with obnoxious moralising, and a twee, simplistic redemption arc, the still enjoyable celebration of Queen couldn’t have been more suited to the conventions of biopic cinema. By contrast, Rocketman is a stage musical waiting to happen. With its sudden and frequent segues from dialogue to music, shifting across time and locations in single shots, and having reality and fantasy merge – often unexpectedly – this feels transplanted from the West End onto the screen.
There’s little that needs to be said about the plot. Beginning with Elton (Taron Egerton) arriving at rehab, bedecked in outrageous stage garb, in… well, to settle on a year would be to overlook timeline matters we’ll return to. As John starts to discuss his problems, we flashback to 1950s Pinner, as young Reg Dwight (Elton’s birth name) is raised in a postwar house by a loving grandmother, Ivy (Gemma Jones), but relatively cold parents, Sheila and Stanley (Bryce Dallas Howard – for some reason, and Steven Macintosh).
The audience accompanies young Reg through from circa 10-12 years old – where he displays a talent for piano, such that he wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music – to early adulthood, where he attracts the attention of record label owner, Dick James (Stephen Graham), and is introduced to lifelong writing partner, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). From there it’s a whirlwind tour through fame, addiction, and excess, taking us through to… again, the timeline isn’t quite consistent.
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In fact, let’s deal with that. Rocketman is not interested in being a nuts and bolts biopic. Characters sing Elton John songs, within scenes, that suit the moment – timeline be damned. So, young Reg sings I Want Love – a 2001 song, worth checking out for the Robert Downey Jr.- starring video – as it suits this section of the film. A young man wants a hug – physical warmth – and the lack thereof influences everything that follows in the life of Elton John. When Elton completes rehab, he celebrates with a song from eight years earlier. This is followed by the music video for that song (Egerton’s face unwisely and really poorly CG’d over Elton) positioned such that it plays like his comeback song, with the implication that Taupin wrote the lyrics for him while he was in recovery.
It really doesn’t matter. Where Bohemian Rhapsody played with the order and timing of events, it appeared, often, to be in service of self-aggrandisement, or, more troublingly, to moralise about Freddie Mercury’s lifestyle. That film often seemed to be saying that the Queen frontman brought his fate upon himself by straying from the embrace of the band, and engaging in all that partying. By contrast, Rocketman is there to give audiences a large infusion of peak-era Elton John. It uses his music to punctuate and to illuminate. That a 1983 song suits where Elton is in 1991 is of no issue.
That idea of giving audiences an infusion of the man is probably at the heart of the film’s visual style. Live performances blend into fantasy sequences, where Elton – and, sometimes his audience – can be seen floating, rocketing to the sky, or, as his career starts to take off, spin at ever greater speed while his costume changes rapidly (kudos to filmmakers for using John’s take on The Who’s ‘Pinball Wizard’ for that later section). While it’s tempting – particularly with the flashback/rehab confessional structure – to see this as Elton’s own imagination, there is little in this film to suggest it’s working at that depth. It’s probably more analogous to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! where extra colour was added to female costumes to try to give modern audiences some approximation of the effect of such costumes on late-19th century crowds. Similarly here, it’s likely that it’s attempting to give modern audiences some feel for the over the top showmanship of a live performance.
Taron Egerton is terrific. Unlike Rami Malek last year, he’s not performing an impression. It is, however, an approximation. Whilst he doesn’t disappear into the role there is the merest hint of John’s speech patterns. The decision to have the actor perform the songs is the correct one. Lip syncing is always the commercial choice, as it lends a mass appeal, singalong quality. It’s distancing, though: giving films an off-the-shelf, jukebox feel. Rocketman lays its subject bare by laying its leading man equally bare, and it is all the better for that.
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Rocketman won’t be for everyone. That West End musical aesthetic lends a slight whiff of cheese, and many casual audiences will prefer that singalong quality – married to a straightforward biopic structure – offered by Bohemian Rhapsody. Beneath the surreal visuals, however, is a far-less-subversive-than-sold tale of an awkward kid who just wanted to be loved (Egerton’s performance as Elton sees his father able to show that love to his second family is heartbreaking). Whereas last year’s film outwardly accepted and celebrated Freddie Mercury, under the surface was a horrible, judgemental tone in its look at his choices. By contrast, this film is about a man learning to love himself as he is. Those who do choose to judge are exposed by the film as unworthy of our respect. If you don’t catch Rocketman here, one suspects it’ll have a home on stage forever.