I’m not sure where the current surge of baby boomer music movies came from, but it looks like it’s here for a little while longer. After the rocking songs of Queen took music biopics to new heights at the box office last year, Hollywood has its eyes set on The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen-influenced movies next. But right now, we have Rocketman, a film showcasing the trials and tribulations of Sir Elton John’s meteoric rise to fame.
Rocketman takes us from the very first time Reginald Dwight touches the keys of a piano as a child to the peak of his success as one of the biggest rock stars on the face of the planet, and all the drug and alcohol abuse and existential meltdowns in between. But the film’s secret to its surprisingly fantastic quality is that, unlike most other biopics, the story being told isn’t really about the career of the man and what it took to get there. Rather, the music and fame and fortune are just the dressing to a very intimate look into the man himself, and his seemingly futile attempts to be loved.
Taron Egerton is nothing short of a revelation, playing Reginald Dwight / Elton John as not just a mere imitation, but truly channeling the real life person to create a fully realized character all his own. Egerton’s Elton masks all of his pain and emotional wounds behind his extravagant costumes and firecracker performances, as well as copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. He can never be loved properly by someone else because he can never learn to love himself, too hurt from his loveless upbringing by a cold and absent father (“Don’t be soft” he tells his son after the young boy asks for a hug that he’ll never receive) and a kind but indifferent mother (Bryce Dallas Howard). The substance abuse is never presented as fun or glamorous, it’s only shown to be a means for Elton to further stew in his own self-loathing (every party scene has him sitting alone).
Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman doesn’t shy away from Elton’s sexual orientation. In fact, the film understands that it’s a vital part of his identity – a major piece of himself that he doesn’t reject, but he does internalize the outside views of “being gay is bad” so it adds to the factors of him being unable to love himself. His sexuality also, obviously, influences his trademark extravagance and flair while he’s onstage, and the film, along with Egerton’s performance, perfectly captures the energy and flourish that a live Elton John show demands. His journey is about learning to accept himself so that he can, in turn, open himself to others, and his sexual identity is an important component of that.
Rocketman also sets itself apart by being a proper musical; the songs aren’t limited to scenes on the stage or in the studio. Like the best musicals, the placement of those songs propel the plot forward and convey what the characters are feeling in that moment (Elton isn’t the only one who sings), rather than simply existing to be a fun music break. Director Dexter Fletcher (that’s a fun name, huh?) refuses to let the musical numbers be stoic, injecting them with celebratory energy or making some visually interesting choices, like one where Elton duets with his younger self at the bottom of a pool. This is something that continuously impressed me about Rocketman – it feels like an actual, artistic film made with passion and nuance instead of falling into the trap of most music biopics where they wind up coming across like a visual Wikipedia article.
The musical aspect of the film occasionally hinders it too though: some aspects of the story, such as Elton’s brief marriage to Renate Blauel, fly right by without being giving proper time to have the right impact, and some characters fall to the wayside before they’re able to properly breathe. But Rocketman’s sense of style and panache still sets a new bar for the genre, and its focus on the complex mentality of the star himself is what makes it something truly special. The music, the fame, and the fortune are all secondary to the story being told and Elton John himself. What matters is the quest to love and be loved (today, he’s retiring from touring in order to spend more time with his family). It’s a standout movie in more ways than one.
4.5 / 5 Stars
Rocketman is now playing in theaters everywhere.