It begins with the backing strains and the soaring choral accompaniment of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”: a striding figure, decked to the nines in orange and red, feather plumage erupting from every possible seam, and a horned headpiece that could take an eye out. The figure slams open a set of double doors after he’s cleared the seemingly endless hallway and steps into an antiseptic white room, with chairs arranged neatly in a circle at its center. There are numerous individuals sitting in these butt-numbing hospital chairs, all staring in silence at this shimmering presence before them.
He takes the lone empty seat.
“I know this bit…my name is Elton John, and I’m an alcoholic”…
It was at this point, as a viewer, that my heart started to sink. Musical biopics are generally among the lower rung of film genres that appreciate over time. So often they follow the same formula that marks the likes of Ray, Walk The Line, and the wretched Bohemian Rhapsody, a film so bad you’d think it was a parody…even moreso than the actual parody of the genre (the brilliant Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). Overly-mythologizing and portrayed with an all too familiar rise, fall, rise again arc that just wears so awfully thin the more its put into use.
The few efforts that break that standard formula are the ones that typically have stood the test of time and repeat viewing, showcasing there’s still the possibility of life within these roaring biographies. Todd HaynesI’m Not There, Anton Corbijn‘s Control, and Bill Pohlad‘s Love and Mercy, for example, take great strides to produce something that reinvents their central figure. For Dexter Fletcher, he had something to prove. The actor turned filmmaker, whose Eddie the Eagle entertained audiences but didn’t quite move the needle in any way, was assigned the unenviable task of cleanup duty on the aforementioned Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer left the production. What resulted could hardly be considered his fault, as he was nothing more than a hired hand, but it made the possibility of any real anticipation for his follow-up difficult.
So we return to that sinking feeling I had. Elton John (Taron Egerton), in full garb, relaying his life story in a rehab meeting. Here we go again. But then, in the middle of a sentence, with a breathy intonation, he begins singing the opening lyrics of “The Bitch Is Back”. Suddenly, what Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall were aiming for comes into focus. This is no mere biopic, but instead a full-blown musical spectacular worthy of Ken Russell. Opening up like a rare bloom, we’re magically flashed back to working class Pinner, England, Sir Elton’s hometown. As the song continues, he’s backed up by a troupe of 50’s housewives and businessmen, shot in a muted color palette, where he’s known as Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley, and later Kit Connor).
Rocketman is a brash, bright, camp experience. Playing heavily with the chronology of Elton John’s biggest hits, we tour through the big highlights of his life, starting with his struggles to find a shred of affection from his father and his first experiences as a child prodigy and then pub pianist. We continue down the road with Elton trying to make it as a solo rockstar after changing his name, meeting and partnering with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), playing the Troubadour in LA, his fiery relationship with John Reid (sidenote: here Reid is played by Richard Madden…between he and Aidan Gillen, he’s got a monopoly on Game of Thrones actors), his short-lived marriage, and his struggles with addiction.
On paper, every bit of this just sounds like business as usual, but Fletcher and company bend the musical output of Elton John to their benefit. Each song is specifically selected to line up with moments of the story, while also using the broader themes behind Taupin’s lyrics to illustrate specific impactful moments in Elton’s life. So “Tiny Dancer” is performed while Bernie is off with his first American paramour at a party. Their splitting up aligns with a stirring reprise of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” It’s a stretch in some cases, but it’s done with such gusto and toe-tapping glee that it’s impossible to not fall under its spell. From a youthful, ever so slightly Bollywood-inflected performance of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” to a drunken suicide attempt turned interstellar journey performance of “Rocketman,” the film is a literal fantastia of his songbook. At the same time, this also critically underscores something often missing from biopics: a theme.
To wit, the driving element of Rocketman is simply the story of a man who wants to be loved and all the wrong places he looks to obtain that missing piece of a happy existence. The filmmakers never lose sight of that. While so many similar films get lost in their subject’s “importance” and the shadow they’ve cast on the music industry, Rocketman hangs onto its humanity by highlighting this key facet of Elton’s journey to self-discovery. Even the most steely-hearted might find themselves just a little affected by one particular moment towards the film’s end and what it says about how we see ourselves.
And it does all this while presenting what is basically a Broadway-ready musical, and by being very, very gay. It’s as if, in response to the punch-pulling that held back Freddie Mercury’s story last year, Fletcher and Hall opted to present a full-fledged view of Elton John’s love life and do so with an R-rating. There’s no panning away here when two men are about to get physical. It puts one in mind of a more general audience friendly version of Velvet Goldmine, though there’s a more satisfying immediacy at play. This is probably made possible by the fact that here the musician in question actually allowed their likeness, story, and music to be used.
I dare not let this review skirt past without making mention of Egerton, who is nothing short of a revelation. If you had said that the star of Kingsman was going to be my Oscar frontrunner in 2019, I might have thought I was hearing things. But instead, we get a performance that, to meet the cliche, allows the actor to completely disappear into the role. At times, while in performance, he looks so much like the rockstar that I thought they had actually slipped in actual concert stills (they did not, kudos to the makeup team). But also his singing is, frankly, blow you away good. It may very well be the best example of an actor embodying all facets of a musician’s persona on screen. There are a number of nicely pitched supporting performances (Madden, a particularly soulful and honest take on Taupin from Bell, both of whom get a shot to show of their vocal pipes too), but this is Egerton’s show from top to bottom.
I’ve never really been much of an Elton John fan in my life, but I liked it so much I immediately queued up his station on Spotify on the ride home. Go see it, maybe even on Saturday, Saturday, Saturday!