Starring: Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service), Jamie Bell (Snowpiercer), Richard Madden (Cinderella), Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World), Gemma Jones (Bridget Jones’ Diary)
Director: Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle)
Writer: Lee Hall (Billy Elliot)
Runtime: 2 hours 1 minute
Release Date: 22nd May (UK), 31st May
The music biopic has really gotten stagnant, hasn’t it? It feels like only yesterday I was talking about Bohemian Rhapsody (which, in retrospect, I think I was way too kind to). More than any other genre, it is one too easily abused in a paint-by-numbers fashion, riding mainly on the popularity of its featured star and all of the nostalgia that comes with them. If you want a thorough deep dive into the homogeneity of these films, I highly suggest watching Patrick Willems’ video essay on the matter, but for now does Rocketman overcome the tired tropes of a dozen similar films before it? Broadly speaking? No. However, it does at least give them a pretty makeover and adds plenty of energy and heart to the mix.
When it comes to telling the story of Elton John, Rocketman does so once again in the expected manner. We start at his humble beginnings, follow him through his discovery of his talents and the chance encounters that lead him to stardom, then see all the mistakes he makes along the way that causes his friendships and careers to crash, before coming to terms with his issues and coming back into the spotlight before a still picture montage of the rest of his life brings us to a close. If you claim that description is a spoiler, then you have never seen a music biopic in your life. The storytelling isn’t always neat, with certain aspects of John’s life brushed over through montages and throwaway lines, whilst other elements like his brief sham marriage given a fleeting spotlight without much point. I didn’t know much about Elton John’s life and career before seeing the film, but I could still tell where everything was going ages before it happened; it certainly does not pass the Walk Hard test.
With that said, the film ultimately overcomes those tropes because of how it handles its tone and themes. This is a bright and buoyant movie that approaches the material with an eye for the fanciful, breaking reality consistently through dreamlike embellishments and non-diegetic song sequences; it is as much a jukebox musical as it is a biopic. It has a sense of style and identity most examples of the genre don’t, but it also doesn’t forget to show the darker and more debaucherous moments. It’s hard not to compare Rocketman to Bohemian Rhapsody given they share so many qualities (most notably in direction, as Dexter Fletcher was the one who jumped in on the latter to replace an “indisposed” Bryan Singer), but when it comes to being honest Elton John clearly has a better sense of perspective than the surviving members of Queen. Whilst the film surely has its fabrications and simplifications, it certainly has no qualms about showing John’s darker side and delving into his sexual exploits. For those worried about this being a straightwashed affair, this is by no means an extremely explicit film, but neither it’s certainly not some coy wishy-washy drivel made to appease the squeamish and/or homophobic. In other words, Rocketman overcomes its more staid aspects by imbuing it with Elton John’s best qualities: showmanship, enthusiasm, flamboyance and heart.
Taron Egerton has proven himself time and again to be an actor worth watching, and with his performance as Elton John he firmly plants himself as one of this generation’s greats. He creates a compelling character separate from his real-life inspiration, thankfully avoiding just doing an impression of John, and sinks his teeth into both his hidden sensitivies and his darkest impulses. Rocketman at its core is about a man learning to understand and love himself in spite of the circumstances, and that journey works because Egerton never shies away from showing John as arrogant, indecent or feeble. It’s easily Egerton’s finest performance to date, and up there with some of the best portrayals of famous musicians ever. The supporting cast also performs admirably, even if their characters sometimes feel a bit arch in comparison to Egerton. Jamie Bell is sweet and understated as John’s co-writer and best friend Bernie Taupin, serving as a voice of reason whilst avoiding being just a moralising tool. Richard Madden as duplicitous manager John Reid is just the right level of despicably charming (and a far cry from Aiden Gillen’s more sympathetic portrayal of Reid in Bohemian Rhapsody), whilst Bryce Dallas Howard is the personification of passive-aggressive in all the right ways as John’s mother.
Given his previous experience with musicals like Sunshine on Leith, Dexter Fletcher’s style is a perfect fit for Rocketman. The musical sequences are the film’s highlights, full of dazzling choreography and seamless transitions to and from the diegetic elements. The song choices from John’s vast catalogue are well implemented into the narrative, moving the narrative and characters forward effectively without feeling forced. These sequences are ably bolstered by the fact that Egerton is a fantastic singer as well as an actor. Again, he doesn’t try to impersonate John’s vocals, but his spirit is definitely intact and he makes all of the songs feel fresh and his own. The film also features the original track “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”, a duet between John and Egerton, and it’s a perfect tribute to John’s legacy. The film absolutely nails its period setting, with the work done to recreate John’s legendary costumes being absolutely impeccable, whilst the editing both moment-to-moment and structurally is inventive and cohesive (unlike a certain biopic that somehow won an editing Oscar…).
Rocketman doesn’t even come close to changing the game for music biopics, but it’s far from a cynical experience. The spirit of Elton John oozes from every frame of this candid journey through his tumultuous career, even when it regrettably bows to tired genre conventions. Take away Egerton’s performance as both an actor and a singer and the film would easily fall apart, but with him it’ll soar right into the hearts of even the most jaded audiences. I think as a genre we need to start innovating more when it comes to biopics of all kinds but, if we have to keep sticking to formulas like this, I demand that all of them at least approach their material with as much exuberance and earnestness as Rocketman.
FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10