I’m 32 years-old. That’s not old but it’s old enough to have seen more than a few musical biopics, all of them so-called “jukebox musicals” in the vein of Ray or Bohemian Rhapsody. These are films whose musical acts are solely the product of concerts and on-stage performances. When they sing, they’re singing on tour or in a club for a large crowd under real lights. Rocketman is the first I can recall to fully embrace the conceit of an actual musical, where characters break into song and otherwise break the rules of our humdrum reality.
Dexter Fletcher, last-minute director on Rhapsody and full-time director here, stages them like Broadway to start and then increasingly like fantasy. Early on, during the required early childhood origin, little Reggie Dwight’s family breaks into a dry soliloquy over supper. The long scene is lacking in energy and that inert editing carries over to a slightly more rambunctious number, beginning in the back of a dive bar and ending among a crowd of dancers at a carnival. Fletcher uses deft tracking shots to follow Elton John from pre-teen to young adult as he finds his voice on the streets of Middlesex, England. Still, there’s something missing amid the smoky interiors and pallid exteriors. Some edge or visual flourish that doesn’t leave us wanting. Once Taron Egerton takes over Rocketman takes off, his performance capable of elevating the pure formula of its plot to occasionally great heights. From a quiet scene at an AA meeting to a shifty moment in a phone booth, Egerton proves he is an incredibly varied performer. Not only does he dance and play the piano, he sings his ass off (take that, Rami Malek) and commits to every kiss like his heart just wants another man to love and love him back. He becomes Elton John as much as Joaquin became Johnny Cash, and coming from me that’s high praise indeed. As his one-time lover and smarmy manager, Richard Madden matches Egerton zing for zing in those inevitable shouting matches. He’s so good you almost forget he’s an underwritten character we’ve seen a dozen times already. On the other end of the spectrum, Bryce Dallas Howard is miscast as Elton’s mother and Jamie Bell does his best in propping up a role quickly cast aside following the first half hour.
As a straight man I can’t exactly speak to how “gay” it is or how much appeal it might have to the queer community at large. Mixed as I am on the film as a whole, I feel Bohemian Rhapsody got a bad rap as some purveyor of homophobia. Beyond a single, brief sex scene between Egerton and Madden, Rocketman isn’t all that dissimilar in content. Where Rhapsody made a point of showcasing Mercury’s healthy relationship with Jim Hutton, Fletcher forgoes that in favor of showing the dreaded sorrow of Elton’s loveless marriage to Renate Blauel. In both cases there are clear if short-handed efforts to underline either positivity or empathy with the man’s sexuality. Unlike the big Queen biopic, however, Rocketman never judges the man. Produced by the band’s surviving members, Bohemian often felt like a screed against Mercury’s drug abuse and high-flying lifestyle. Fletcher and writer Lee Hall never cast an all-seeing, all-judging eye toward Elton John or his wayward partying, instead using the AA session as a framing device for telling the musician’s tale from his point of view. Trite as it is sometimes, there are real attempts at getting to the core of his identity crisis and horrible childhood. No matter how successful he became he could never achieve meaningful approval from either the father that never wanted him or the mother who always resented him. It’s unfortunate that such attempts prove fruitless at painting a three-dimensional portrait of John, but these are the limitations of a stubborn genre. The bigger the budget the more palatable it must be to a wider audience, making it difficult to transcend dime-store psychology.
With a musical biopic comes a mundane, rigid structure, and no matter the framing devices or fantasy embellishments Rocketman is no different to some extent. I’m 32 years-old, and I’ve seen far too many of these. Alternately flat and energetic, it’s a film in need of a supremely talented performer, and Taron Egerton is just the ticket, wearing the garish costumes and sparkling glasses like a pro. He taps into the harried soul of Elton John in a performance that would guarantee him an Oscar nomination were it not for Malek’s win in the spring earlier this year. Going full musical was a good choice on Fletcher’s part though, as Egerton and such ingenuity make Rocketman slightly better than the average biopic.