It’s all but impossible to discuss Rocketman (★★★★), a musical biopic about the life of Elton John, without noting the inexplicably-Oscar-winning elephant in the room.
Bohemian Rhapsody raked in almost $1 billion and four Academy Awards, and did it all while being a profoundly mediocre film buoyed by excellent music and a strong central performance from Rami Malek. Rocketman is not Bohemian Rhapsody. Indeed, it’s the anti-Rhapsody in almost every way.
They do share similarities: both are about two of music’s biggest personalities, two gay men who led dramatic, rollercoaster lives while producing incredible music. But where Rhapsody was clunky and tired, Rocketman shimmers with glitz and joy. Where Rhapsody hit play on a CD of some of Queen’s biggest hits, Rocketman spins Elton John’s music into new and wonderful interpretations. Where Rami Malek delivered a meticulously studied impression of Freddie Mercury, Taron Egerton creates a fully realized and embodied character that is wholly his own. And, in its biggest success, where Rhapsody was almost embarrassed to even deal with Mercury’s sexuality, Rocketman puts Elton’s front and center, in a glorious display of body contact, eye-humping, and high camp delight. Plus, the first gay sex scene in a major studio movie.
In perhaps the biggest surprise to those entering a theater after seeing Rhapsody, Rocketman also isn’t a straight-laced biopic. It’s best described as a musical fantasy biopic drama — a mouthful that only begins to scratch the surface of its enjoyable take on Elton John’s early years, his first break into music, and then his descent into drug-and-alcohol-fuelled hedonism. And it does it all while being a sung-through, choreographed, honest-to-goodness musical.
Indeed, Rocketman shares more in common with Broadway’s jukebox musicals, which interpret an artist’s songs to retell their lives or an entirely original story — think The Cher Show or Mamma Mia. It even shares a hokey narrative framing device that feels ripped straight out of theater: Elton tells his personal story, warts and all, while attending a group meeting in a rehab clinic. From there, we drop into moments of his life — a child prodigy at the Royal Academy of Music, an iconic performance at the Troubadour club in L.A., the personal hell he descended into after his substance abuse took hold, and so on — as rehab Elton narrates his emotional journey.
Director Dexter Fletcher — who, coincidentally, took over filming of Bohemian Rhapsody after original director Bryan Singer was fired — clearly threw himself into Rocketman. The film is a constant visual splendour, whether showcasing the ridiculous theatricality of Elton John’s various costumes, revelling in the period details of its journey from the ’50s to the ’80s, or keeping each of the film’s carefully choreographed dance numbers in check.
Those musical numbers are often when Rocketman is at its most impressive, both stylistically and narratively. “Honky Cat” frames Elton’s burgeoning and toxic relationship with lover and manager John Reid, as it transforms him from living modestly at home with his mother to splashing out on mansions, lavish clothes, and Reid himself. It’s a loud, hectic, over-the-top dance number, and it works. At the other end of the scale, “Rocketman” becomes a haunting, beautiful, and surprisingly spare observation on the abuse Elton suffered — both at his own hands and Reid’s, as he was shuttled around the world on tour despite the destruction he was causing to himself as his substance abuse worsened.
The glue holding all of this sequined splendor together is Taron Egerton’s incredible performance. Encouraged by Elton himself not to merely copy his style of singing, Egerton instead makes Elton’s songs his own, and in turn produces a characterization that, while injected with perhaps a touch too much square-jawed machismo, brings to life a charismatic, deeply flawed, sympathetic man who has it all but deep down yearns only to be loved. Egerton’s enthusiasm and emotional delivery feel fully formed — where Rami Malek was hemmed in by wigs, teeth, and Freddie Mercury’s voice, Egerton uses the makeup and the costuming to his advantage. He is Elton, just not as we might know him. Plus, he didn’t lip-sync.
Away from the spotlight, things are a little more mixed. Jamie Bell puts in a strong turn as Bernie Taupin, the only person who truly cares about Elton amidst the glamor and fame. Gemma Jones brings warmth and heart as Elton’s grandmother Ivy. And Steven Mackintosh is suitably hateful as Elton’s cold, distant father Stanley — a later scene between the two really puts Egerton’s acting chops on display.
Less successful are Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mother, Sheila, and Richard Madden as John Reid. Both deliver well — Howard’s slightly questionable accent doesn’t diminish her performance, and Madden is suitably menacing as Reid’s icy cold true nature shows itself. But they’re written and also portrayed as relatively one-note villains. Howard’s Sheila is so ludicrously hypocritical, and Madden’s Reid so devilishly uncaring, that one can’t help but wonder if this is Elton’s personal involvement clouding what could have been more nuanced characterizations.
And Rocketman might be a fabulously entertaining ride, but it’s not without its problems. It’s filled with cliches — apparently, every such biopic must, at some point, show spinning newspaper headlines to convey an artist’s rise to success, for instance. A lack of timestamps is a bold choice, but it does occasionally leave confusion as to where exactly the film has taken us. And even less forgivable is a horrifically schmaltzy third act scene where Elton forgives those who have mistreated him — not only does the lazy staging feel ripped straight out of an amateur theater production, but the dialogue is cringeworthy.
However, while the film occasionally stumbles, the journey it takes is so enjoyable that it’s hard to fault it. Is it a better film than Bohemian Rhapsody? Absolutely, though music purists and longtime Elton fans may disagree. Is it an objectively good film? That’s less clear. But subjectively, it’s a blast. A camp, outrageous, glitzy blast — one wholly appropriate for the musical genius it celebrates. In a world of straight-laced biopics, Rocketman tries for something different, and it thoroughly succeeds.
Rocketman opens in theatres everywhere Friday, May 31. For tickets visit www.fandango.com.