Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman flies in the face of other musical biopics. Not because it presents an entirely novel version of such a story, but because it presents the same-old cliched version and makes it a fantasy.
We hear the musician’s story straight from the horse’s mouth, as Elton Hercules John (Taron Egerton) struts into a group therapy session donning an ornate devil costume and heart-shaped glasses. He proceeds to tell his life story to the group. Through this framing, Rocketman sheds any preconceived notions that biopics have anything objective to say about their subjects. In the present, Elton can be an unreliable narrator. In the past, scenes from his life are laced with dreamy, musical bravado.
Fletcher makes clear that Rocketman is a show, not a retelling. In doing so, he elevates the film from its most recent point of comparison, Bohemian Rhapsody. Where Rhapsody is self-serious in its homage, presenting an exhausting, cliched experience, Rocketman is a self-aware homage to a performer that would want it no other way than to make his life story an all-frills musical extravaganza.
The “musical fantasy” finds Elton, born Reginald Dwight, in a household that tolerates more than accepts his natural talents as a performer. He plays in a dive bar. He meets his collaborator, and they fervently make music together. He is chewed out by a record producer who thinks he knows better than Elton about what makes a hit song. Elton hits it big very quickly, and he slips into a world of uninhibited intoxication.
It is the rockstar storyline to a T. In many ways, the narrative could not be much more conventional than it is. But it is the conventions of a biopic blended with the conventions of a traditional musical. Characters stage themselves as if it is a theatrical production, and they start singing from Elton John’s songbook. Occasionally, there will be an ensemble of dancers circling Elton. Elton will literally float with the lightness of his fame, or he will fade in and out of a drug stupor throughout the course of a musical number.
It is a mild twist on the norm, enough so that it adds an energy to Rocketman that most biopics lack.
Is the film a revelation? Not by any stretch. The plot hits plenty of cloying and misguided beats. It begins with the misconception that musical genius is immediate, that Elton can learn to read music just by looking at it, that he understands the melodic structure of a chord the first time he touches a piano. It ends with a cathartic resolution to the emotional throughlines which misses the mark. In the middle is a lengthy and stagnating addiction narrative which most be told but takes up altogether too much screentime.
But some of the conventional narrative beats have that added flavor to them. Elton’s first big concert, at the Troubadour, depicts his elated feeling literally, which is an interesting touch. The rock-bottom moment of his addiction is also shown as this dream-like fantasy of crying out for help.
Egerton’s performance as Elton off-stage is not entirely steady. But his performance as Elton the singer is impressive. And it is these musical renditions that really propel the film forward. A lot is asked of Egerton as a performer, and he fills the shoes as best as anyone could.
Rocketman is likely to provide you what you want and expect out of an Elton John biopic. It has flair. It has pomp and circumstance. It has ornate costume design. It has all the hits that you’d expect. But the film also throws in a surprise or two in its pursuit of musical fantasy that livens things up a bit. It’s better for it.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)