Rocketman: a musical desperate to break out
Hold me closer tiny song and dance numbers.
Elton John’s music elevates films. Almost Famous is unforgettable after a ‘Tiny Dancer’ sing-along. The heart of The Lion King lies in John’s wonderful compositions. Even action film puns work like Nic Cage’s ‘Rocketman’ reference in The Rock. John has always been a support act to cinema but his life headlines Rocketman.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher (Sunshine on Leith, Eddie the Eagle) the biopic traces John’s breakthrough years, rise to fame and his breakdown. The film opens with John (Taron Egerton) entering rehab in a glittering devil costume. He’s a flamboyant avatar for personal demons. Even at his lowest moment, John is going to shine. After an emotional confession his inner child appears and starts singing. Group therapy becomes a musical. Reality crumbles and the film reverts to a melodic fantasy where song and dance numbers fuse with John’s recollections during a stint in rehab.
Scribe Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse) positions John’s story as a tug-of-war between the past and present. Fletcher and Lee use this structure to acknowledge the flaws of biopics. The approach works because we’re experiencing loose memories instead of a straightforward retelling of a true story. Rocketman feels refreshing but only because of the sins of recent films like Bohemian Rhapsody (Fletcher completed the film after director Bryan Singer left) and The Dirt. John’s story creaks outside of each musical moment due to the mechanics of music biopics: the childhood, the wigs and the doubters: “he’s never going to make it.”
The musical-fantasy element is where Rocketman dazzles because music is everywhere in John’s life. Fletcher captures a sense of destiny because music and lyrics are always around John; it’s an essence to tap. During a scene where John is trying to sell himself to a label, he plays a few bars of ‘Candle in Wind’ on a piano. When asked for the name of the song, John replies, “I don’t know I made it up.” You get the sense of how melodies form in John’s mind on the path to superstardom. The sequence where John sits a piano to put a tune to Bernie Taupin’s (Jamie Bell) lyrics is remarkable due to its restraint. In Johns parent’s living room, he sings ‘Your Song’ while his mother reads the newspaper and Taupin has a shave. A beautiful song is born in a mundane setting.
Fletcher goes big with a brilliant hometown number built around ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’. ‘Tiny Dancer’ is a forlorn ballad to Taupin; and ‘Honky Cat’ highlights the excess of fame and fortune. Each song is an excellent signpost in John’s life – ‘I’m Still Standing’ gets new life – and they’re not used in chronological order. You get a sense of the people and places that provide the inspiration for John’s music. A minor hinderance to a bulk of the musical sequences is how close the camera sticks to the action. Fletcher never pulls back the camera to reveal the scale of each musical moment. With so much movement these moments feel claustrophobic when they should be grand.
Egerton is remarkable as Reginald Dwight evolving into Elton Hercules John. The performance is low on gimmicks like false teeth and focuses on the guy under the big sunglasses. As John’s star rises, everything gets bigger – the costumes, the shoes, the audiences – and he gets sadder. John is a celebrity hiding in plain sight. Often, Edgerton’s melancholic eyes stare out from behind tinted spectacles or he’s practices a fake smile in front of a mirror. In these moments you catch a glimpse of Reginald and Elton vying for dominance underneath it all.
Hall focuses the story on John’s search for his identity and the exploration of his sexuality. Drugs, booze and shopping are all extravagant excuses for John to avoid being himself. There’s also the pressure to keep his sexuality a secret in fear it will impact record sales despite the advances of his own manager (Richard Madden). The scenes John shares with Taupin (Jamie Bell) are the heart of the film. John and Taupin’s relationship birth the duo’s biggest hits and it’s a partnership that becomes a brotherhood over the course of the film.
The fusion of biopic and musical isn’t a perfect union because Rocketman still leans too much on the daggy re-telling of true events to carry it home. John’s relationship with his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) borders on cartoon villainy, and the music scene of the 70s has its sex and drugs, but a lot of period film gloss, too. One of the production companies behind the film is Rocket Pictures, owned by Elton John, so it’s sits close to its subject but not far away enough to be impartial. In the film’s closing moments, it cuts to a montage of John’s achievements as if you’ve got sudden amnesia; Fletcher’s film remains in awe of its leading man. The grandstand finish exemplifies how music biopics aim to inspire an audience rather than interrogate their subject. John has a phenomenal story but his true essence is in the music. Rocketman is a biopic with a musical at its core begging to break free.