One of my favorite videos on YouTube is one where Elton John is giving a concert that’s also half lecture, and the actor Richard E. Grant asks him to improvise a song based around instructions for his oven. Aside from John’s ability as a piano player, the video highlights his preternatural songwriting ability and the cheeky humor that would define his career. Rocketman, the new film about Elton John, also understands these qualities are what make him unique. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, a cliché-ridden biopic that features some Queen songs, this film is more of a traditional musical. Every major character sings, and while the storytelling beats are depressingly familiar, the film’s sense of theatricality adds a welcome sense of energy.
Anyone who has seen rock star biopics or even Walk Hard knows the structure this film will follow. After a series of humble beginnings, Elton John (Taron Egerton) has his big break and catapults to stardom. He indulges in rock star excess, striking up an affair with John Reid (Richard Madden). He develops a drinking and drug problem, and it’s exacerbated because he feels his homosexuality dooms him to a life of loneliness. His friend and lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) prefers women, while John’s mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) essentially calls him a deviant. The framing device for the film is John at the world’s most patient Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He tells his life story while wearing an exaggerated devil costume, and his defiant attitude soon gives way toward self-reflection.
To the film’s credit, it seems self-aware about its biopic tropes. Its big emotional scenes are perfunctory, unless they are set to music. Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall pack Rocketman with John’s tunes, using them to create epiphanies and emotional logic to his life. There is an early scene where a young John and his family sing “I Want Love,” a late career tune that was made famous by the video with Robert Downey Jr. Here the song takes on deeper meaning, used to express loneliness in the singer’s entire family. The “Rocket Man” sequence is one of the best in the film: John sings it after a halfhearted suicide attempt, and the imagery jumps between isolation and being manhandled by strangers.
Aside from spontaneous breaks into song, the more traditional music sequences are also satisfying. The first performance of John’s breakout single “Your Song” is heartbreaking, and John’s wild performances at The Troubadour take on a life of their own. Fletcher films with overabundant, almost saccharine light. The effect is like a TV movie, one that’s clearly intended to appeal to a broad international audience. The good news is that the music is good enough so that it makes up for the corny imagery. Unlike Rami Malek, Egerton actually sings in Rocketman, and while his voice is not a replica of John’s, it is soulful enough (he also nails the mannerisms and looks shockingly like him as a younger man).
Speaking of Bohemian Rhapsody, you may recall that Aidan Gillen aka Littlefinger played John Reid in the Freddie Mercury biopic, and the similarities between the films do not stop there. Dexter Fletcher finished Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired. These film are in conversation with each other, since they rely on similar storytelling shorthand and include major gaps/omissions. The R-rating certainly helps Rocketman, since it does not shy away from John’s sexuality like BoRhap did. Sex in this film is admittedly prudish – a little full-frontal male nudity couldn’t have hurt – but at least the film does not whitewash John’s private life. By wallowing in his mistakes and flaws, neophytes could watch this film and get some sense of who Elton John is.
Parts of Rocketman will probably make you roll your eyes. There is a key scene where a middle-aged John is confronted by figures in his past, and it culminates with John hugging/forgiving the child version of himself. Elton John is alive and kicking – he also served as producer for this film – so his input probably led to more than a few indulgent moments. But as a celebration of Elton John as an artist and a tortured soul, Rocketman’s sense of exaggerated abandon strangely makes it a more accurate film.