Directed by Dexter Fletcher
It’s hard not to compare Rocketman to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Both movies follow a fairly standard biopic formula in depicting the rise, fall and rise of a celebrated English star, both who happened to cross paths with the apparently devious John Reid. Director Dexter Fletcher even had a hand in guiding the Bohemian Rhapsody ship through its choppy waters during production.
They’re similar movies with similar paths, but Rocketman does what Bohemian Rhapsody should’ve tried to do. In their similarly neat structures, both biopics gloss over a lot that had to do with their main characters’ lives. This one gets around it by openly embracing the spectacle and absurdity of the journey, by playing into the more imaginative, surreal qualities of the movie. It’s a fantasy that we find ourselves in, and I think that allows us to overlook what’s not so true to life as long as it builds up the emotional journey (and I think it does). In contrast Bohemiam Rhapsody claims to be the true story of Freddie Mercury and Queen, but it’s the watered down, PG-13 version of the band that the surviving members wanted to tell.
So this is by no mean a perfect movie, but it does what I think had to be done to make it work. There is no pretense here that this is exactly true to life or even groundbreaking. Instead it’s just a wild and entertaining ride through one particular example of such a journey. Much like Bohemian Rhapsody it’s really just an excuse to play a few of Elton John’s greatest songs, and that’s more than okay. It never gets too serious to get in its own way.
The movie is like one long, extended musical. We follow Elton from his childhood days as Reggie, glimpsing the ways he is both fueled and hindered by his environment, and time and again a particularly noteworthy moment in his life will give rise to another of his chart-topping hits. It’s of course the same as with so many biopics, that we see a moment of despair serving as the inspiration for a legendary song, and it’s perhaps a bit silly here since Elton John doesn’t write his own songs, at least as we’re told within the movie.
It’s a disconnect that never bothered me because of all the ways the movie declares its own separation from reality. Instead it might just be the way Elton John himself remembers all of this, a blur of highs and lows, of debauchery, glamour, intimacy, drugs, blurry nights and sold out shows that bleed one into the other. It’s the epitome of rock and roll, I suppose, or what it might look like should you rocket to the top and then bottom out, as one must it often seems.
Within this biopic structure, not just here but for so many movies, there is something I think uniquely American. It’s the same as with gangster movies like Goodfellas or something more family friendly like 21. A character gets some kind of break, whether due to talent or luck, and is elevated to the top given everything he or she could ask for. Suddenly the edges are dulled as every possible superficial need is met. There’s money, sex, drugs, booze and constant company. This dream, once fulfilled, tells you that you never need to be alone and you never need to feel anything you don’t want to feel.
Of course the downside soon follows. As you get more successful you become addicted to that success and soon certain friendships and relationships fall by the wayside, doomed by paranoia and greed or just the sudden quickness with which your life paths deviate. The person at the center of all this is now surrounded by those drawn not to the ‘person’ but to the celebrity and the money. These are people who benefit from the main character’s fame and fortune.
So then the hallowing out begins in earnest. The character realizes that money and fame can’t buy everything, in fact it can hardly buy anything. So much of the superficial qualities of fame lose all meaning and give way to an existential depression that can only be alleviated by falling back to the bottom, to learn to live again.
So it’s a type of story that gives into lottery daydreams but then reminds you that this wouldn’t really fix anything. What needs to be fixed is within. And this is a message hammered home perhaps a little too directly in Rocketman, but it’s one I nevertheless believed. It’s sincere enough to feel earned, even if it is the expected coda to a story like this.
So none of this would matter if the movie isn’t fun, and it is very fun. It’s a spectacular mess, in the best ways, showing so quickly how celebrity and fortune can become anything but neat. It’s loud, explosive, vibrant and showy. It’s fireworks personified, and part of the appeal here is that the movie holds everyone accountable for their actions, particularly Elton John. He isn’t some kind of deity, no matter how much he’s celebrated, but rather someone with a particular talent who nonetheless had to learn to live with himself. No matter how much the result of a Hollywood formula he is, there’s enough here in the storytelling and Edgerton’s performance to bring this character to life. In fact there are several small moments in which Edgerton just f*ckin’ kills it, conveying Elton’s vulnerability on his way to the top.
Again I keep thinking about this in relation to Bohemian Rhapsody. In that movie Mercury was presented only the way the surviving members of the band wanted him (and them) to be seen. He’s similarly flamboyant, but it’s a quality the movie writes off as a sign that he’s lost his way. In Rocketman Elton John’s flamboyance is never the problem, because it’s not the problem in any conceivable way.
This feels like a movie that understands its main character and its audience. It celebrates what makes Elton John unique without suggesting that those same qualities meant he has lost his way. Hell I don’t think we ever even saw Freddie Mercury make love with a man in Bohemian Rhapsody, something which felt like the deliberate intention on the studio’s part not to alienate viewers in the Bible Belt part of the country. Here we definitely see Elton’s first time with his lover and manager, John Reid, and later on there will be a handful of set pieces which show off the characters’ sexuality as well as a whole lot of people around him.
So while this movie is by no means perfect, it’s not made with inhibition. It’s celebratory, a bit raw and certainly explosive. It’s a hell of a lot of fun and brings to mind some of the same qualities in this year’s The Beach Bum. They might make for a good double feature.
Up Next: Memories of Murder (2003), Dark Phoenix (2019), Aniara (2018)