Rocketman (Fletcher, 2019)

I’ll give Rocketman this much: it is a more credible endeavour than its closest antecedent, Bohemian Rhapsody. On the aesthetic front, Rocketman is not as visually shoddy or bogged down by competing artistic visions. Dexter Fletcher had a clear concept in mind and ran with it, whereas with Bohemian Rhapsody he was forced to paste together a film from scraps left behind by someone else and could do very little as a result. Using Elton John’s music in a jukebox style and mixing the songs around to find the best thematic intent for each one is also a more interesting conceit than simply rehashing multiple concert performances one after the other. Some songs are played straight because they work great just as they are (like “Your Song,” the performance of which results in one of the film’s more poignant moments), while others are tinted differently to reflect Elton’s emotional turbulences, and by and large it’s effective. They’re not meant to rouse you out of your seat, nor do they invite impromptu karaoke contests, but the artistic sensibility of the practice adds affective textures to Elton’s psychological journey that can be keenly felt by the audience.

I also like that Fletcher shoots some of these numbers with excessive camp and bombast, like when Elton turns into a rocket at the end of “Rocket Man” the song (in a dream, of course). There’s a total awareness that such literalization of the lyrics is gaudy as all hell, but who cares? When you sign up for a musical, you’re expecting an over-embellished spectacle involving many winks and nudges, and in true form Rocketman has that in spades (and feathers and platform heels, etc.). In a similar sense, the overt campness also ensures Elton’s sexuality is not mitigated or problematized in the same way Freddie Mercury’s was in his biopic, even if the way Rocketman conflates his queer identity with material excess still lacks a lot of nuance. One can at least appreciate that Elton’s struggle with his identity is given more attention here and that it’s noticeably more complex in presentation than, you know, Freddie Mercury singing “Ay-Oh” to an AIDS patient or whatever that was.

Unfortunately, the similarities to Bohemian Rhapsody also extend to its negative qualities. No matter how much time you have, making a coherent, fully-fledged musical biopic of an artist is treacherously difficult lest you want it to look like a cinematic Wikipedia page, and this is where Bohemian Rhapsody really suffered. Rocketman’s remedial approach is to make chronology negligible in terms of Elton’s growth, jumping indiscriminately through decades at times because its aim is not to chart Elton’s course in terms of hit singles, but to instead privilege his eventual arrival at maturity after battling so many insecurities and demons. The problem is that it still can’t find the smoothest transitions to get to that point and must also rely on a particularly clunky framing device to make its objective evident (the device in question being a fictional therapy session). The greatest musicals utilize strong writing to glue the music together in a way that is complimentary; Rocketman does the inverse by relying on Elton’s songs to support all the stray threads of his life story, and the approach is less successful because it cannot eradicate any dead air or slow spots that occur in between. And when the songs themselves are more insightful than the non-musical sections, this further exacerbates the issue. Towards the end, I truly was impatient for more music because the narrative was so listless.

Elton’s own involvement with the project, much like Queen’s creative stranglehold over Bohemian Rhapsody, also raises some red flags. Even if Elton allowed a lot of his unflattering behaviour to be kept in this account, this is still an effort to lionize him all the same. Any film that ends with its subject singing “I’m Still Standing” is not going to be overtly critical, you know? One can sense the subjective distortions and image management at work in the background, leaving me to wonder if this would have gone differently had it been done after Elton’s death. Will this forever be considered the definitive portrait of Elton John, and, more importantly, should it be? I’m inclined to say no on the second account for the aforementioned reasons. As to the first, it’s going to be very hard to find another Elton mimic as good as Taron Egerton, that’s for sure. It’s not a remarkable performance in the sense that Egerton can’t peel back every layer of his subject, but he puts so much heart and zest into it that it’s an easy flaw to overlook in the heat of the moment. He snaps into the role like it was tailor-made for him (and his false teeth actually look normal compared to the horse dentures Rami Malek was forced to don). Oh, and what do you know, he sings the songs himself. That alone is enough of a reason to admire the work he puts into this.

To wit, I run both hot and cold on Rocketman depending on which aspects you want to focus on. Egerton (and, may I add, Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin), the music, the camp, the spectacle, the costumes—all strengths. The structure and the nuance regarding Elton’s sexuality needed more finetuning, however. To that end I’d be more likely to rewatch clips of the musical numbers than the film itself. It’s still a better effort than I thought it would be, and after last year, my expectations prior to its debut were not high to begin with.