Rocketman doesn’t like to use the word ‘biopic’.
Dexter Fletcher prefers the term “true fantasy” for his flamboyant take on the life story of Sir Elton John, arguably one of the most iconic British rock stars of the last fifty years. That certainly fits many of the creative choices inherent in Fletcher’s film and Lee Hall’s screenplay, not to mention the casting of Taron Egerton as John’s cinematic avatar – the culmination of numerous actors in the frame over the two decades in which John has tried to get a film about his life produced, including Justin Timberlake and Tom Hardy. Now if that is not fantasy, it’s hard to imagine what is! Elton John may be many things but a movie heart-throb he is most certainly not. Rocketman, from that perspective, is pure wish-fulfilment.
Yet this is not a hagiography, despite John and his long-term partner David Furnish producing (the latter more heavily). Hall’s script does not pretend that Elton rise to legendary fame was all champagne and rainbows. The drugs are there, the booze, the sex, the angry outbursts and egotistic trappings. Rocketman points a big, intentional, neon sign at the indulgent largesse of Elton’s life that more than once almost killed him at the height of his fame, and is unafraid to show the man at the most down point of his life. The reason Rocketman fails to quite ascend to the heights of great drama, great biopic or even great musical, is because it stops *just* short of showing Elton at his worst. This Elton is still the hero of his own story, looking for love in all the wrong places.
It leaves you wondering just how much bite Rocketman *might* have had if Elton had been less involved.
Rocketman continues the unexpected ascendancy of a new cinematic sub-genre: the musical fantasy.
While the first shot across the boughs was arguably 2008’s Mamma Mia, not until 2016’s The Greatest Showman did Hollywood take seriously the possibility that musicals didn’t have to simply play as comedies or highbrow dramatic adaptations (such as Les Miserables). Musicals could also transport you into a realm where the real met the whimsical, and The Greatest Showman with its anachronistic use of modern music alongside the 19th century setting reignited a passion for the genre. Mary Poppins Returns last year served as pure fairytale, Bohemian Rhapsody brought the story of Queen to the masses and gained huge popular and financial returns, while Mamma Mia’s sequel Here We Go Again—as well as the Bradley Cooper take on A Star Is Born—cemented the romantic musical fantasy as, outside of the superhero genre, one of the most popular and successful style of pictures in modern filmmaking. Rocketman very much aims to capitalise on that growing popularity.
Not all of those examples are the same, of course. The only truly analogous film of those mentioned is Bohemian Rhapsody (also directed by Fletcher, parachuted in to finish the job after Bryan Singer’s disgrace and removal), given it has its roots in the biopic as opposed to the purely fantastical stories also mentioned. Fletcher may not like the term biopic for Rocketman but that’s what it is; like his previous feature Eddie the Eagle (also starring Egerton as a plucky nobody thrust into stardom), Rocketman constructs a narrative which ticks off many key beats in Elton John’s life – sponsorship at RADA, playing the Troubadour in LA in ‘69, his unlikely and short-lived marriage to Renate – which, coated as they are within introspective fantastical trappings, still gives the audience a picture of Elton’s life roughly from his childhood in the late 1950’s through to his rock’n’roll crash and burn amidst the excess of the late 1980’s. That’s the framework around which Fletcher tells a story, ultimately, about learning to love yourself. That’s what Elton, in this narrative, comes to realise through the power of the lyrics of his songwriter and best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). That’s the journey.
It means this is never quite the ‘warts and all’ take on Elton John that Rocketman *might* purport to promise. The framing device suggests at the beginning that it could be; Elton tells his own story through a somewhat hyper-real version of rehab, dressed mostly at his most extravagant and often pretending everything in his life was fine. At first, you wonder if this could be a scabrous examination of a self-confessed drug addict, alcoholic, sex addict etc… but Fletcher wants you to care about him, even if you can’t always like him. While Taron Egerton gives the role his all, doing a more than convincing Elton impression throughout, you wonder if he isn’t just too charming a screen presence to do Elton justice. It was different for Eddie Edwards – he was a loveable, naive underdog whose dogged determination made him impossible not to like but Elton largely has everything handed to him on a plate from his late teens. “You’ve never had to do a hard day’s work in your entire life” his hypocritical mother Sheila (a bizarrely cast Bryce Dallas Howard) spits at him and she has a point. Rocketman wants you to buy into the tragedy behind Elton’s diva persona.
Egerton is making a career so far out of playing the plucky, cocksure folk hero (whether it’s Robin Hood or Eggsy from the Kingsman movies) but his casting seems a little disingenuous when perhaps we should have had a young, Philip Seymour Hoffman-type in the role; less obviously handsome and more capable of spitting bile to the degree you genuinely might not want him to succeed, which never happens in Rocketman. There is a line when Elton asks “what does a fat boy from Pinner have to do to get a record deal?” and it never rings true from Egerton. He’s not miscast as such but he perhaps typifies why the fantasy is not just about Elton’s music, and how it sub-textually is informed by and informs his life choices, but Fletcher wants us to believe in a fantasy, handsome version of Elton we can feel sorry for even when he’s filthy rich living in a big house, drowning in booze. Hall’s script rinses out every available emotion from Elton’s circumstances to that effect.
The result is that we end up with archetypal representations of family characters that border on cliche – Dallas Howard’s selfish, myopic mother; Steven Mackintosh’s distant, emotionally controlled and absent father; Gemma Jones as the grandmother who believes in little Reg Dwight (Elton’s original name); and chiefly Richard Madden as John Reid, Elton’s second manager and eventual lover; such a villainous, loathsome, corporate individual he could be twirling a moustache whenever he’s on screen. If you were being generous, these archetypes could be characterised as existing through Elton’s own fantastical prism; less real people, more versions of his family that Elton has made distinctly black and white in their motivations in order to further compensate for his own complexity, but this is charitable. Rocketman is never absurd or eccentric enough to truly sell the idea that most of this exists in Elton’s head – indeed you wish sometimes the visuals, script and direction would go for broke and indulge more in warped, egomaniacal brio than it ever does.
This isn’t to say that Fletcher doesn’t enjoy twisting Elton’s music into distinctly fantastical realms. Indeed the songs are, perhaps quite rightly, the film at its most engaging and enjoyable, not to mention inventive; ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ becomes a pub brawl segueing into Egerton’s teenage Reg emerging in a circus fair filled with mid-60’s teddy boys; Rocketman carries through symbolically across the picture, as Elton sees child Reg reflected back at him under swimming pools and in therapy, while the song itself forms part of an abstract, particularly theatrical set piece in hospital after Elton suffers a mild heart attack. None of it is subtle in any context, in the same way the Mamma Mia films took the songs of ABBA and made them reflections of the character’s inner thoughts, feelings and frustrations, but they don’t need to be. While Mamma Mia felt like a karaoke night on holiday, Rocketman when Egerton and other members of the cast are belting out tunes often hits the stratosphere, but it struggles with that momentum in the piecemeal, episodic narratives that bridge Elton’s greatest hits.
Rocketman, despite its shortcomings and its propensity to play it fairly safe, is a lot of fun. It does chart young Reg’s transformation into Elton, who begins as essentially a character, a performance, and comes to define him. It points to Elton’s inspirations of jazz musicians such as Count Basie which he fused with Elvis rockabilly and modern pop music (of the 70’s) to deliver a unique sound underpinned with some truly superb songwriting; indeed the relationship best served in the entire picture is that of Elton and Bernie, the former’s rock amidst the stormy weather of his life. It doesn’t sugar coat Elton’s homosexuality, either; he is pitched headlong into a hugely damaging sexual relationship with Reid which marks him and further fuels his issues of rejection stemming back to his father. If you want to get really Freudian, Reid could almost be seen as an extension of Stan Dwight but, well… that’s getting into deeper psychological territory than Rocketman is prepared to play with.
Ultimately, Rocketman is a flamboyant confection designed to present the troubled origin story of a vivid, legendary musical character, and does so through a toe-tapping fantastical prism. By the time ‘I’m Still Standing’ thunders in with panache by the end, as much as Rocketman never quite ascends to the heights of musical cinematic greatness, you’ll find the journey has been worth it.