It's hard to tell if Rocketman, the new musical biopic about Elton John, is more art or gimmick. And harder to tell if it matters when a film is so hellbent on entertaining. Weaving John's famous tunes into the narrative, Rocketman is alternatively poignant, rousing, and ludicrous. Overcooked and over-produced, the film takes a different approach to rock fans' hearts than last year's Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody. But both movies share one important similarity — they put the music first.
Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody also have a director in common: Dexter Fletcher, who took over for Bryan Singer on Rhapsody after the latter was fired from the production for erratic behavior. Fletcher obviously knows his way around this kind of material, yet he's made two very different films over the past two years. Whereas Rhapsody is more a standard biopic, working chronologically from origin to stardom, Rocketman morphs into musical form as Elton's catalogue comes alive onscreen and the narrative becomes a fantasy. It's like a music-video movie.
Of course, the film's style is inspired by John, and works because that fact. He's the Liberace of rock and the film is made in that spirit. The "fat boy from nowhere" ditched the name "Reggie Dwight" and became Elton John. He reinvented himself and the film is a celebration of that rebirth in all its glory and ugliness. It's up front about its lack of veracity as well, choosing instead to stand as a kind of legend.
John's early life was a struggle and the film begins with his non-relationships with his mother and father, although the story is framed by Elton (Taron Egerton) in rehab where he tells his story in group therapy. Born Reggie Dwight, the future Elton John escaped his tumultuous home life by learning the piano. After studying at the Royal Academy of Music, Reggie joins a band, changes his name, meets his lifelong writing partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his manager and first love, John Reid (Richard Madden), and enters into a life of superstardom and debauchery.
Elton's recollections of his life are played out in extravagant musical sequences that'll thrill his fans. Songs are used to forward the story, but also to accentuate emotion.(Although, "Tiny Dancer" will always belong to Almost Famous.) The song numbers range from bold and essential to regrettable. There are times where you just want to get back to the story, and times when your heart is filled with joy.
The conflict in the film stems ultimately from John's self-hatred and internal struggles. Using drugs, sex, and alcohol to cope, the star refuses to confront his fears — his parents, his homosexuality, his abusive lover — and get help. Until, finally, he does.
Egerton fills Elton's angel-winged shoes quite well. One underrated part of the performance is how he nails John's body language and movements, especially as he gets older. He may not be Justin Timberlake (who was originally slated for the role, years back) onstage, but Egerton goes all out in the performance scenes and does Elton proud in spirit and soul.
Rocketman is many things, but it's rarely boring. It's a movie made for the fans and made for the music. Biopics tend to follow the same formula, but here's one that uses music to infuse the story with life and emotion. Rocketman is the rare biopic that's made in the fashion of its subject, and that's an entertaining thing.