Hey, did you think Bohemian Rhapsody kinda sucked and wasn’t authentic about the artist it was trying to portray? Good, this is that done right.
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Release Date: May 31, 2019
There are few musicians in modern history that have had as much success as Elton John. The man has hit after hit and for a time accounted for 5% of all records sold across the globe and is an institution in the halls of classic rock and pop. It seems fitting that for all of his larger than life music, his biopic Rocketman also feels larger than life in all the best ways. It’s loud, brash, stylish, and is everything that Elton John is. It doesn’t try to pretend it’s something that it isn’t or rearrange fundamental aspects about his life, yet that authenticity also weakens the movie at times.
I’m hesitant to even call this a biopic of Elton John because if you were coming in looking for a movie that sheds light on the man and his personal demons, you may be somewhat disappointed. It’s all there, from seeing him start out as a backup musician for American bands before becoming a global superstar, but it’s less interested in the facts and more about the persona of Elton John. It’s a fantasy at times, with crowds of choreographed dancers coming in to dance and sing to some of his greatest hits like “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” “Crocodile Rock,” and “Bitch is Back.” Serious moments give way to sets that would feel right at home on a Broadway stage. We’re always aware that this is a heightened reality, like any musical where any character can blurt out singing. It’s a musical that flip flops between being diegetic and non-diegetic. Sometimes we watch Elton sing at a concert, other times he’s singing at the bottom of a pool to his childhood self in a golden diver suit.
But yeah, if you’re looking for “The Elton John Story,” you may want to look elsewhere. On one hand, I never felt like I learned more about the man after seeing this movie. On the other hand, at least it doesn’t misinterpret basic facts about him and confuse dates, events, or relationships all in an effort to make a biopic that isn’t accurate. It’s up to you to decide whether it was a necessary sacrifice to make this a lighter in tone biopic, but at the end of the day Rocketman is a damn fun movie, tone be damned. I wanted to hear some good Elton John music with a dash of drama, and that’s exactly what I got.
When I think back to moments from the movie that stood out to me, all I can think of are the song sequences, performed marvelously by Taron Egerton. Egerton nails being Elton John in a performance that is truly Oscar worthy. He brings so much natural charisma to the role and shows a wide spectrum of emotion, from being a shy and meek man, to a larger than life superstar thrilled to be alive, to finally a depressed and suicidal man who feels no one can truly love him for who he is. Egerton plays all of these emotions in a believable way and doesn’t have to act through any obviously fake prosthetic to do so. Plus he actually sings his songs instead of being dubbed over Elton John which allowed him to better inhabit the role. What a concept!
When Egerton starts to sing, the movie comes alive in every possible way. Crowds will start to sing and dance, montages will show a passage of time with Egerton wearing lush and vivid outfits that were all worn by real-life Elton and painstakingly recreated for the film, and the visuals take you on a true journey that spans the world and the deep recesses of Elton’s mind. About 30% of the movie is just Egerton or some other character singing some of Elton’s greatest hits, and with a catalog as massive as Elton’s there is no bad song here. Granted, I wish that some songs would have gotten the full treatment instead of just a few bars and calling it quits, but that can hardly be a criticism when so many great songs are featured here and some tough cuts had to be made. It happens.
What can be a legitimate criticism is that the movie slowly loses its ways after the halfway mark. While the earlier moments were tight and focused, showing a sober and in control Elton, as soon as he begins to drink profusely and do all drugs known to man, it’s really easy to get lost. The movie rushes through scenes that leave Elton, as well as the audience, in a daze with no real idea what’s happening. Characters become a daze with some of them not even getting names and song sequences will abruptly end with Elton waking up and talking to a character mid-conversation, before segueing into another scene without much context. I get what Rocketman was trying to go for in these moments, and they work well in theory, but the execution muddies the intent of it.
But I said at the beginning that Rocketman was a better movie than Bohemian Rhapsody, and I still stand by that. Coincidentally sharing the same director (Fletcher was brought onto Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was booted), Rocketman reminds us that Elton John was a troubled man, but he made some great music. It celebrates the life of Elton John and never apologizes for showing its audience a good time or the troubled personal side of the man. Rhapsody, meanwhile, leaned too hard into trying to sell Freddie Mercury as a tragic figure/victim and played fast and loose with basic facts to tell a story that, at the end of the day, wasn’t a movie that celebrated his music. The highlight of that movie was the Live Aid concert because it was just unadulterated Queen and allowed the music to finally shine through, almost as if Rhapsody was afraid to be a musical. Rocketman is all music with the plot serving as a necessary evil to go from scene to scene.
As a love letter to Sir Elton John, his music, and his life, Rocketman gets the job done marvelously. This was a movie where I turned my mind off and just bobbed my head along to some awesome tunes. The movie was at its weakest when it decided to focus on the plot, but Egerton’s performance was like a spoonful of sugar to make it go down easier. Egerton made Elton into a person with a beautiful heart that commanded attention. It wasn’t for his wardrobe, which is seriously amazing and whoever did the costuming for this movie deserves every major award come awards season, but for his legacy and genuine talent. This is exactly what a feel good musical is and I hope that we get more movie musicals like this in the coming years.