Review: Rocketman (2019)
Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman doesn’t veer away from any of the musical biopic cliches, from the abusive childhood to the early spark of genius to the troubled adulthood and eventually a final breakthrough into balanced stardom. But it doesn’t have to. The film’s allure lies in its presentation of all these biopic tropes within a full-on musical, where Elton John’s remarkable music is not limited to scenes of recording sessions or on-stage performances, but permeates into every dramatic moment. In fact, the entirety of Rocketman seems to be built from the music on outwards. The songs inform the scenes, and the film itself works much in the same way as Elton John’s concept albums do, telling a conventional story wrapped around the genius of his music. Thus, Rocketman does not succeed through the originality of its storytelling, but through the verve of its presentation, which revitalizes the musical biopic through the power of musical theatre.
Framed around Elton John telling his story at an AA meeting, Rocketman embellishes at every turn, which is fitting for someone who has created as fanciful a persona as Elton John (who was born Reginald Dwight to a middle-class family in Middlesex in 1947). Taron Egerton of Kingsman fame plays Elton as an adult in a tremendous performance. Right from the get-go Elton is wearing one of his elaborate costumes and exaggerating every element of his story, letting us know that Rocketman will be fantastical and theatrical. Once Elton starts talking about his childhood and he starts to sing and the walls of the room slide off screen to reveal his childhood street with neighbours dancing and children singing, we know we’re not watching a film that purports to depict reality, but a heightened version of it. And from that moment on, all the musical biopic cliches are no longer storytelling crutches, but essential to the structure of the musical genre, as they ground the heightened songs in familiar storytelling beats.
It’s hard to overstate how refreshing the musical direction is here. By playing as a full-on musical as opposed to a conventional musical biopic, Rocketman frees itself up for inventive and outlandish staging. Not that it’s always novel in its presentation of Elton John’s music. For instance, the actual performance of “Rocket Man” ends with Elton launching from the stage in Dodger Stadium and exploding like a rocket overhead, so it can be overwhelmingly literal in its visual ideas. But other scenes, such as a cut from Elton’s childhood to adulthood during an evening carnival set to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” shows how energetic and exhilarating this approach can be.
It helps that Egerton is exceptional in the lead. Not only is he the spitting image of a youngish Elton John, but he’s able to mine authentic depths of sadness during the crisis points in the film. He also has a great singing voice to boot and the film lets him sing the songs, as opposed to overlaying the original tracks or blending his voice with the artist’s (as in Bohemian Rhapsody). In the midst of all the musical spectacle, the film also captures the essence of Elton John’s personal journey. His abusive professional and romantic relationship with music manager John Reid (played by Richard Madden having all the fun in the world as a pompous schemer) reveals the wounded child at the centre of much of Elton’s story: that so many of his weaknesses come from having a mother who belittled him and a father who ignored him, and so he turned every subsequent relationship into a means of getting what he lacked from his parents.
It’s also interesting that Rocketman chooses to frame the most important relationship in Elton’s life as the relationship with his songwriter, Bernie Taupin (played by Jamie Bell in a bit of smart casting that brings with it a lot of interesting meta-textual meaning). By having a platonic friendship and artistic partnership at the centre of the film, Rocketman keeps its focus squarely on the music. The film elevates the music above all else. Elton’s biography may be interesting, but for the film it matters in so far as it informs his music, not that his music is a simple reflection of his life story.
The film’s greatest achievement is making its cliches strengths rather than weaknesses. In fact, the film ends up revitalizing some hoary cliches through inspired artistic choices. For instance, Rocketman has the typical musical montage that plays out midway through every musical biopic, but here, the hyperactive editing and compacting of years of Elton’s life is depicted as a drug-addled haze, one that Elton barely remembers. Fletcher and cinematographer George Richmond essentially drown the scenes in glaring stage lights and keep the camera constantly whirling to simulate the wild haze of intoxication. It’s a demonstration of how the film leans into the cliches and gives them new life. In some ways, Rocketman reinvents the musical biopic. It demonstrates how successful this subgenre can be when all of its conventions are not crutches but a framework through which to explore and celebrate the fantastic music.
8 out of 10
Directed by Dexter Fletcher; written by Lee Hall; starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard.