Rocketman gets to the to the soul of Elton John
The advertising materials for Rocketman claim that it is “based on a true fantasy.” One could regard this as a copout, designed to absolve the filmmakers from having to include any truth in what is, by all definitions, a biopic. It’s a valid concern considering most movies of this type result in a crowd emerging from the theater saying things like “that’s not how it really happened” or “that person behaved differently in real life,” but with Rocketman, it’s hardly a concern at all, and it has nothing to do with whatever nomenclature is used to categorize the film. Dexter Fletcher’s fantastical tale of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s legendary musical partnership is so emotionally honest that plot veracity is irrelevant. Even as a fan, I couldn’t tell you the specifics of Sir Elton John’s journey, and I’m sure the movie takes plenty of liberties with it, but I still get the sense that plot be damned, this movie is telling the truth. Whereas things like Walk the Line and Bohemian Rhapsody feel like stories told by a fan, Rocketman feels wrested from the soul of John himself, and it plays like yet another in a long line of his indelible hits.
Ever since Walk Hard ruined the typical biopic structure via spot-on parody, it’s been a struggle for those trying to make one in earnest. The “he needs to think about his entire life before he plays” trope is officially unusable, and Rocketman subverts it right off the bat. Yes, Elton John does need to think about his entire life as a framing device for his cinematic story, but he doesn’t do so in an effort to mentally prepare for a showstopping finale. Nope, he tells his life story because he’s in therapy. Decked out in bedazzled glasses, spangled devil horns, and more feathers than Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the troubled pianist bares all to those in his therapy group, and before long everyone is up on their feet, singing and dancing alongside him.
You see, Rocketman is a musical with full-on song and dance numbers in which a large cast of characters sing along with an wide array of John’s hits. But this isn’t always the case with the music, however. Some of the tunes are diegetic, existing as our hero plays for a crowd or works in the studio, while others simply serve as background music. The score is littered with melodic references to his body of work as well. It seems like a confusing mess, now that I’m typing out a description, but somehow it all works beautifully.
We follow young Reginald Dwight as he discovers his musical talent, and we stick with him all the way through the trials and tribulations of growing up a bit different from everyone else. Unlike his stuffy, old guard-allegiant family, Reginald, who takes the name Elton John from a hilarious combination of influences, carries with him a natural pizazz. In addition to that, he’s a homosexual, which doesn’t quite fly with those he’s close to. He grows up, as we all know, to become one of the most iconic musicians of all time, and Rocketman keeps us with him every step of the way.
Director Dexter Fletcher (who picked up directing duties on Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan “I am a monster” Singer departed production) does some amazing things with his visuals. Being that this is a “true fantasy” he’s able to do anything at any moment visually/structurally speaking. While this free stylistic pass could easily lend itself to an unwieldy finished product, that’s simply not the case here. The dips into fancy are handled with tact, and the film never stops being fun. Be it an early scene where the color is washed out of everything except young Elton, to a later sequence when he literally sprouts rocket feet and flies into the sky above a theater spilling over with adoring fans, it’s all just so much fun.
The hype is real regarding the central performance from Taron Egerton. The young actor embodies John in a way that few actors tasked with doing a high class impersonation ever have. Perhaps that’s because, despite looking uncannily like his mark, Egerton is doing more than an impersonation. He has created a full, dense characterization that captures the humanity behind Elton John, warts and all. And really, it’s those warts that make this performance such a standout. So often biopics attempt to explain away their subject’s less savory behaviors, but that’s never an issue here. This isn’t Elton John saying “Yeah I was an asshole, here’s why” but rather “I fucked up and I’m sorry. My legend does not erase my behavior, but I forgive myself and I hope you’ll forgive me too.” Not even Walk the Line, the arguable high-water mark for the genre (until now), managed to pull this off. What that and Rocketman do have in common, however, is that their respective stars can really sing. Like, really really sing.
Eat your heart out Rami Malek (although to be fair, NO ONE could ever fill Freddie Mercury’s vocal shoes).
Egerton’s shadow is undeniably huge, but Jamie Bell manages to step out from under it for the entirety of the film. Bell plays John’s longtime writing partner, Bernie Taupin. It’s well known that Taupin’s mastery of lyricism is much of what makes Elton John’s body of work so legendary, and the dues are paid to him here in full. Their partnership grows organically, and as the one aspect of John’s early years where he experiences actual love, the duo of actors had to do some seriously heavy lifting. I can’t speak high enough praises of the work that they do. John and Taupin’s collaborations have always had a storytelling nature to them, and it’s amazing to see their work applied to a cinematic tale. The lyrical/tonal parallels to their lives aren’t explicit, but it all fits so damn perfectly that it can’t just be a happy accident, can it?
As time passes, a mixture of subtle prosthetic makeup and even subtler performance hints serve to age the characters in realistic ways. It’s very rare for old-age makeup to not look ridiculous, but with each new attempt it gets better and better. Granted, this isn’t a case of making a young actor elderly, but still, the way that the highway miles pile up on Egerton’s face is stunning. The aging done on his mother, played with a performatively grandiose lushness by Bryce Dallas Howard is a little more showy on account of her having to play upper middle age by the end of the film, but it’s hard to fault the makeup when her performance is so good. Yes, Sheila is accepting of her son’s ways (and of the material aspects of his success), but not so much that she could be called supportive. What makes her relationship with Elton so interesting, is the way it suggests that she’s partially the source of his egotism. At the same time, her own ego is rooted in a repression put forth by her emotionally distant husband — whose traits are also imprinted on their son. It’s an impressive set of characterizations that goes well beyond “parents BAAAAD!” It gives us an angle through which to understand our central character without giving anyone a pass. Despite existing in a fantasy world, these characters are unmistakably human, and that, along with the masterful film craft on display, is what makes this one of the best musical biopics ever made.
Elton John carries within him the fire of passion; of creativity. It’s a flame we all stoke in our own hearts. If tended to properly it can light the world. If not, it can burn everything down.
Rocketman is a film about how this flame works in symbiosis with love, if only we’re brave enough to seek love out, and kind enough to let it in.
Rocketman opens in Philly theaters today.