Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
There was a definite feeling towards the tail end of 2018 that Hollywood was rediscovering a love of musical biopics and stories. A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody premiered in quick succession and in May of 2019, Rocketman‘s depiction of Elton John’s life made its way to cinemas.
Of course, there was some connective tissue with the Freddie Mercury biopic; both films featured noted music manager John Reid as a character, played by separate actors, but both of whom – strangely – appeared in Game of Thrones, while both films had involvement from Dexter Fletcher.
Where Fletcher was brought in during the tail end of Bohemian Rhapsody‘s production to steer the film to its finish line, Rocketman is very much his film through and through. While there are distinct similarities (how could there not be), Rocketman would be greeted warmly by critics, even if its box office take would be somewhat lower than the Queen film.
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The film begins in a manner that is none more Elton John, who arrives at rehab in a colourful devil’s outfit and then proceeds to recount his life story. Right away Taron Egerton owns the role, and Fletcher nails a tone that flits between emotionally realistic and yet stylistically fanciful. This isn’t a nuts-and-bolts account of the life of one of the music industry’s most iconic figures (although there is nothing wrong with that approach, and as seen here in some of the previous films covered here in Music in the Movies, the results can frequently be wonderful).
Fletcher’s aim is to make it as dreamy a biopic as possible, but one that never flinches away from the troubles that John faced and the emotional hardships he had to endure, doing so in a way that is fanciful, borderline artsy and incredibly imaginative. In a word, it’s the film you would imagine an Elton John biopic to be in its purest form.
Memory and longing drive so much of the story here, but it also does it by utilising the back catalogue of iconic songs at its disposal to brilliant and powerful effect. Yes, some of the later songs are used when John is a child (particularly ‘I Want Love’, but why complain when the song is as good as it is and it’s used as devastatingly as it is here), but every one is done so well here that you can’t help but go along with it.
Better yet, the decision to make the film a fully-fledged musical makes it stand out from Bohemian Rhapsody, Coal Miner’s Daughter and so many other musical biopics. Of course, it’s not a total stand out from some others that have been made (such as Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story which really did do something original and different in its approach), but like Purple Rain, Rocketman devotes itself fully to music and performance in its portrayal of a life.
Where even Purple Rain opted to make the performances and music part of the fabric of the film via stage performances, the decision to make this a musical with dazzling choreography and elaborate set-pieces makes it a stunning piece of modern cinema, but what makes it sing (no pun intended) is how it doesn’t use the more fanciful, magical realism approach to sugarcoat the life it is depicting.
Even with an HIV diagnosis, Bohemian Rhapsody used the Live Aid concert as a way to give Mercury and the film a happy ending of sorts, but Fletcher and writer Lee Hall never shy away from the complex relationship John had with his parents or the toxicity that came with his relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden) who is painted here in a more antagonistic role in comparison to his time with Queen.
Throughout all of it Edgerton brings nuances and complexities to his performance as John in a way that really should have earned him more awards. The May release date meant that perhaps his work here was forgotten about somewhat when awards season came round the following year, and that’s a real shame because this may very well be his best performance to date. The same goes for Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin, whose friendship with John forms an optimistic heart at the centre of the film in a very moving way. The combination of the two not only brought about an iconic creative partnership, but also a friendship that forms an emotional backbone that the film explores, like so much around it, to a powerful degree.
Like with Queen, the film also has the benefit of a tremendously brilliant back catalogue of music to utilise to crowd-pleasing effect. The ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ sequence is an absolute banger, while inevitably the film finds much beautiful poignance in the creation of ‘Your Song’.
That it manages to capture the raw honesty of John’s life and yet the sheer delirious brilliance of the music he and Taupin created makes it nothing less than something of a masterpiece, and by the time ‘I’m Still Standing’ and Fletcher’s recreation of that song’s iconic music video arrives for the climax, you’ll simply want to stand up and cheer.