Elton John’s not the man they think he is at home in Dexter Fletcher’s sparkling, muddled biopic.
It’s almost impossible not to compare Rocketman with 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Besides the fact that both films are biopics of arguably the two most famous queer rock musicians in history, they also share a director, Dexter Fletcher (although Fletcher only directed a part of Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was ousted from the project). Outside of these similarities, however, the films are hardly comparable: while Rhapsody stays relatively grounded in reality with occasional flourishes of theatricality, Rocketman is a bombastic musical that borders on the surreal. In many ways, the biopic feels more like an extended music video, with its highly formalist style being both a credit and a detriment to its appeal.
The bulk of Rocketman takes place in flashback as Elton John (Taron Egerton, Kingsman), relates his life story to an AA support group. The exact timeline is kept fuzzy, but the story is told linearly, showing Elton’s progression from a precocious child named Reggie Dwight, to back up musician, to rock god, while exploring both his drug and alcohol addictions as well as his friendship with his longtime writing partner, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, Fantastic Four).
While Rocketman is superficially focused on Elton’s myriad addictions, his search for love is the real story. A lot of Elton’s insecurities implicitly lie with his relationship with his parents: his father, Stanley (Steven Mackintosh, Underworld), refuses to show his son affection and leaves the family relatively early; his mother, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World), is nominally supportive of her son, but resents his homosexuality and rock star antics, and seems to prefer her son’s money to him.
While there is probably some truth to Fletcher’s portrayal of Elton’s parents, it is more likely that their callousness has been exaggerated for story’s sake. Mackintosh’s lack of emotion as Stanley makes him seem more like a parody of the “disapproving father” trope common to the biopic genre than an actual person. Sheila is more nuanced, with Howard giving her a dry sort of charm that makes her feel more self-centered than disdainful up until the third act.
The other main toxic relationship in Elton’s life is his ex-manager/lover, John Reid (Richard Madden, Cinderella), who charms his way into Elton’s life, only to reveal himself as a greedy manipulator. The relationship between Elton and John feels like a natural progression of an abusive relationship. The pair meet at a party after Elton’s successful debut at LA nightclub, The Troubadour. John quickly charms Elton, and the pair start a relationship that feels romantic and natural until John starts making business decisions that makes it obvious that he cares more about Elton’s marketability than his well-being. Their relationship ends when Elton catches him cheating, but due to their contract, Elton is unable to get rid of him as a manager.
While the relationship that Elton has with his parents and his lover can sometimes feel clichéd, they do help Rocketman take a more frank, naturalistic approach to his homosexuality. Again, it is hard not to compare it with Bohemian Rhapsody. Despite having – for at least most of its production – a gay director (Bryan Singer), Rhapsody featured a surprising amount of implicit homophobia, with its suggestion that Freddie Mercury’s unhappiness was due to the fact that he wasn’t in a monogamous (implied heterosexual) relationship with kids.
Rocketman, on the other hand, feels more at home with its queer themes, with much more explicit queer affection, and the fact that the heterosexual relationships aren’t idealized. Most queer people will be able to relate to the heartbreak Elton feels when his mother tells him that he’s “chosen a lifestyle where [he’ll] never be loved properly”. While the notion that living openly as a queer person is living a life of loneliness is fading away, it’s still a sentiment that is tragically still common among too many.
What makes Rocketman so uneven is, ironically enough, a lack of understanding of what makes Elton John so iconic.
The film also succeeds as a vehicle for Elton John’s iconic music, with some stunning musical set pieces. While Egerton doesn’t exactly capture Elton’s singing voice, he still manages to emulate Elton’s flamboyant performance style that keeps you enraptured as he takes command of the screen.
Visually, the musical numbers are a treat as well, with the strongest being the eponymous “Rocket Man”, which takes place as a drugged out Elton tries to drown himself at a party. As he floats to the bottom of his pool, he sings to his childhood self before being pulled out and rushed to the hospital, as Egerton sings “and all the science I don’t understand” he is lifted and twirled with ballerina-like grace among the hospital staff before being prepared for another performance. It’s a captivating performance in a movie full of rocking song and dance numbers, from the raucous “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting” to the campy shopping spree montage set to “Honky Cat”.
While Fletcher’s campiness works for the musical numbers, it does a disservice to the plot. Despite the copious amount of drinking, cocaine snorting, pill popping, and fornicating Elton partakes in throughout, Rocketman feels remarkably tame. The entire movie keeps the glam rock sheen of the musical numbers in every scene, glossing over the demons Elton has to face. While Fletcher does show the downsides of addiction, it also makes Elton’s lifestyle feel a little glamorous, which undermines its message somewhat.
Part of the issue of glossing over Elton’s addiction is the fact that Rocketman needs to truncate large portions of the plot. The film covers about 40ish years of Elton’s life, and to fit that in 2 hours, a lot of his life needs to be rushed over, putting a lot of emphasis instead on Elton’s childhood and his search for stardom. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means most of the second and third act is told in musical montage, leading to some major pacing issues.
What makes Rocketman so uneven is, ironically enough, a lack of understanding of what makes Elton John so iconic. Yes, his costumes and stage antics are theatrical and campy, but he backs it up with soulful music and deep lyrics. Unfortunately, Rocketman embraces Elton John’s campy aesthetics but ignores the soul behind his music. This leads to a film with gorgeous music, sets, costumes, and cinematography, but clichéd characters and a truncated plot. While the end result is often entertaining, Elton still deserves better.