The musical biopic, just like the bitch, is back. After the success of Bohemian Rhapsody, we almost immediately have Rocketman, which does more for Elton John than the former ever did for Queen. Movies should not always be reviewed via direct comparison, except there is an important connection between the two: Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) is openly the director of Rocketman, and he was the secret director of Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired. Where Bohemian Rhapsody was a spectacular creative failure and a massive commercial success, Rocketman is an actual movie, with an aesthetic, a voice, and not total contempt for its ostensible star. Rocketman is still a music biopic, with all the drawbacks of the genre, but it at least attempts something with the form.
Elton John (Taron Egerton, TV’s Moominvalley) tells a support group about the turbulent life that lead to his need for rehabilitation. His captive audience follows young John from his childhood with a distant father (Steven Mackintosh, TV’s Wanderlust) and uncaring mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, A Dog’s Way Home), to his fateful meeting with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, Skin), and his exploitative personal and professional relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden, TV’s Bodyguard).
Having a single focal character works greatly in Rocketman’s flavour, as it does not have to pretend that it is interested in giving equal time to any of the support cast. Egerton is asked to carry the movie, and he does it with aplomb, embodying the cheekiness and flair of the man he is tasked with portraying. The passage of time is indicated largely by Egerton’s receding hairline, and how much the people who surround him like him. The greatest parts of Rocketman boil down to the love story at its core: that between John and Taupin. It is platonic, and Egerton and Bell feel palpably tender and respectful of one another.
Rocketman stumbles slightly when it comes to the inevitable dramatic arc of your traditional music biopic, because somehow every musician has the exact same life story. Up until he falls into substance abuse, the John “character” is an individual with his own biography, and his own aesthetic. The rehab framing device does not feel fresh and it does not do John or Egerton any favours. Even if John himself insisted that writer Lee Hall (Victoria & Abdul) should not sugarcoat his life story, it is unfortunate that the trajectory had to be so cliché.
What ultimately helps Rocketman is that it is semi-musical: the songs are not entirely performed on stage by John and his band, but are mixed throughout the story and distributed among the various characters. When songs accompany the action they are metaphorical rather than literal, either a celebration of singing and dancing, as with the artistic licence taken for “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” and the literally transcendent “Crocodile Rock”. The music is almost entirely freestanding, independent of the timeline of real life. Rocketman becomes a film about feeling rather than facts, and it’s ultimately better for it. Fletcher has a confidence with this material that makes it both engaging to watch and reverent of its source without pandering to it.
Rocketman is a film that largely celebrates the life of its subject, showcasing his songs without trying to portray him as a monster. The drama is mostly tepid, but the highs are hot and there is a sense of creativity about many of the musical set pieces. Rocket Man largely conforms to the hallmarks of its genre, but it has enough differences to make it just that bit more than your standard music biopic.
Rocketman opened in Australian cinemas on May 30, 2019.
Directed by: Dexter Fletcher.
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Steven Mackintosh and Bryce Dallas Howard.