Released: 30th May
Seen: 25th May (Advance Screening)
Last year I reviewed a little indie film called Bohemian Rhapsody, you might have heard of it. At the end of that review, I gave the film a 3 and a half rating, a good score for a good film but the more I’ve ruminated on it, the more I realise how the film just isn’t that good. If I were to review it today it’d probably get a 2 and a half star rating. That’s kind of the fun thing about reviewing, as you watch more films you build up a bigger library of references and can spot flaws easier. So when I saw the trailer for Rocketman, I was ready to be a lot more critical about the film. I was ready to not be won over by whimsy but to actually do this properly, and when I found out that the director of Rocketman was the same man who was brought in to replace Bryan Singer on Bohemian Rhapsody after everyone finally realised that Bryan Singer is a bit of an asshole (to put it lightly) I was excited. This is it, a do-over, a chance to try again and make sure that this time I spot a gaudy mess for what it is… and then they just had to screw up my plans by actually producing a fun enchanting film that put the biggest smile on my face. I swear, it’s almost unfair.
Rocketman follows the trajectory of the iconic Elton John (Taron Egerton), from his humble beginnings as a young boy playing the piano in his mother’s home, to his time as a backing musician and finally to stardom. Once he hits stardom though, Elton not only has to deal with the problems that fame brings, he also has to deal with a nasty drug and alcohol habit that threatens to destroy his whole career. He has to try and work out his friendship with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and most importantly of all, try to find love for himself since he clearly won’t be getting any from his abusive boyfriend and manager John Reid (Richard Madden). All of this while, far as the outside world is concerned, he has to go on being the ultimate showman night after night.
Musical Biopic films are probably one of the most difficult to deal with because, considering that every film in this genre is about wildly different musicians, they all have an almost identical structure. It’s incredibly formulaic with the only changes being the songs played and the names and while Rocketman also follows this formula (a formula that’s laid out brilliantly in the video essay The Broken Formula of Music Biopics) it throws in a curveball by taking the story and turning it into a lavish musical, one that regularly dances between diegetic and non-diegetic music (aka music that happens in the world of the film and music that happens just for the audiences benefit). A prime example of this happens early in the film when young Elton played in a bar, the first few notes of which happen clearly in the real world before it turns into an elaborate dance number set to Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting. This number then allows them to transition from young Elton to the famous actor that they paid a large amount of money for, so it has two purposes. By playing with the music’s diegesis, they can actually use it to tell Elton’s story. Sure, we could have a long sequence where Elton has to recover from almost dying of a drug overdose OR we could have Elton singing Rocketman while being lifted and carried around by a team of nurses doing highly choreographed dance moves and transition from that to his next big gig… which is more interesting?
Speaking of interesting, if Taron Egerton isn’t pushed for an Oscar in the same way Rami Malek was, I’m going to scream. He not only embodied Elton, but he also took on the extra hard task of trying to sing like him and it’s amazing. He gets all the mannerisms, the attitude, the flamboyance, it’s all there. Brilliant little details like him putting on his show face just before walking on stage or him struggling to handle his father’s apparent rejection, it adds so much to the performance. He’s not afraid to go big and campy when it’s required, he’s more than capable of going quiet and emotional when needed. It’s the most gloriously engaging performance I’ve seen all year. He doesn’t hold back, he gives his all and if Kingsman: The Secret Service got people to notice him; this role is what will send his career to the next level. It’s absolute perfection.
I really do appreciate how this film never really holds back on any of the darkness in Elton’s life. As we saw with Bohemian Rhapsody last year, there’s a tendency in these kinds of films to try and soften the rough edges as much as possible in order to try and make it palatable but Elton clearly said “Fuck that, here’s what happened” and put it all out there. The sex, the drugs, the alcohol, the drugs, the anger, the drugs, the abusive relationship, the drugs and, of course, the drugs. They do not shy away from any of it. We have to watch Elton battle through hell and get through it all. It’s not a story about a rock star making a big album, it’s a man who faces his demons and has to fight for sobriety when everything goes to hell. They basically stop the film the moment he gets sober because that’s the story they’re telling, they stop early enough that Elton hasn’t even met his future husband at the time.
Now, we come to the part that has actually been controversial… time for everyone’s favourite game show, HOW GAY IS IT!? Because it’s Hollywood there have been people speculating that they were going to tone down the gay factor, which… good luck with that. This movie is gloriously gay, it’s about a man finding himself and they never shy away from his gayness. They have the first gay sex scene in a film released by a major studio. Think about that for a moment, it took until 2019 for a major studio to go “Yeah, we can have the gay men do it”, that’s a weird thing to have to celebrate but they do it and it’s shot exactly like any other scene with a straight couple. They make it very clear that this is a story about a gay performer, to the point where they turn his 4-year marriage to Renate Blauel into a minute long scene where they meet, get married and divorce… because yeah, it has to be addressed but it’s also clearly not who Elton was. It’s open and proud about who Elton was and never dances around the topic of sexuality, or anything else that Elton went through.
There are a few clunky moments that feel like they could’ve been reworked, such as Elton’s opening speech where he basically turns directly to the camera and gives the audience a summary of all his assorted ailments in a list which just felt like they were trying to say to the audience “We swear we’re not going to pretend he was perfect, look at all these things he’s got wrong with him!” and it just was jarring (and then they broke into Bitch is Back so I was right back into it). Then there’s the big ending which I won’t spoil but… it’s clearly Elton John just wanting to have words with people from his past and it also felt a little clunky but that’s it, two scenes that really felt off… that bookended a film that absolutely got it. It put Elton on screen, let us celebrate him, let him show his bad side and did it wonderfully.
Rocketman is a bright gaudy musical extravaganza filled with elaborate costuming, dance numbers and more than a little bit of vulgarity… so, basically, it’s exactly the film you would make about Elton John. From top to bottom it’s a treat to watch, able to throw a smile on your face as you walk out humming the iconic tunes. With a truly brilliant lead performance and an over the top style, Rocketman is the big bright bold biopic that Elton deserves and I can’t imagine it being done any other way.