Review: Rocketman (2019)

The biopic is familiar territory, a genre with a tendency to fall into a disappointingly mundane sense of realism. These are stories of supposedly great people, and one would hope a film dedicated to their life would attempt to capture some sense of their spirit, especially when covering people of certain aesthetic sensibilities. Yet so many of these movies instead fixate on the supposed ‘truth’ of their story, sacrificing style to do so.

Here comes Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, hot on the heels of the divisive Bohemian Rhapsody, on which he served as replacement director halfway through production – it’s clear this latter work has benefited from his total control. This is a film that kicks off with its protagonist barging into an AA session while decked out in a flamboyant devil costume, his first words leading into a childhood musical number.

Elton John has always been bigger than life, and Rocketman does so much to capture his grandiosity. Turning his life into a stylized musical that slips in and out of time lends his story a surprising energy; even if the plot beats seem familiar, what really matters is how they’re handled. This film rarely misses a beat, seamlessly stringing together elements of his life through musical numbers.

Taron Egerton kills it here as Elton. It’s difficult to match the real Elton on a vocal level, but Egerton does enough justice to lend these songs a distinct form; Rocketman is thoroughly a musical, not just a biography that happens to feature music, and part of that distinction is by giving the numbers a new shape. Egerton likewise captures the outward exuberance underlined by a familiar anxiety; the tortured artist is a common story, but again, it’s captured well here. Rocketman is a work that does little new, but it excels at the familiar.

Part of this strength stems from its subject; Elton John is one of the world’s biggest stars, but his personal life has always been shrouded by a prominent persona and his music. Most of his modern coverage, the stuff I’ve experienced, is dedicated to his now happy love life.

Part of what sets Rocketman apart is the fact it’s a story of a gay man that doesn’t end tragically. It largely avoids the common tropes of mainstream LGBT films, especially historical ones, while still diving into the more personally devastating elements of the experience. This is a story of living in a lonely world, where it’s easy to fall for people who are simply incapable of returning that feeling, where the options sometimes seem limited enough it’s easy to settle for someone less than alright. Most importantly, this is just one aspect of Elton’s grand life.

The film is surprisingly heavy throughout; though Elton obviously finds great success, everything is tinted with addiction and that crushing loneliness. We expect these stories to hit the highs and lows, but Rocketman actually tends to gloss over many of those high points as they get shrouded in turmoil. What’s strange about this film is the distance; musical numbers perhaps summarize certain eras too quickly, but this lends a certain affectation when combined with the framing device of Elton in counseling. The “Rocket Man” number begins with Elton perhaps at his lowest point and abruptly transforms into a surreal stage performance; how slyly but flamboyantly Fletcher captures someone trying to overlook their issues by focusing on the successes that in no way negate their problems.

Some of the musical numbers work better than others, but those that work are fantastic. The film starts off with “The Bitch is Back,” a perfectly campy choice for child Elton to sing in his innocent youth. The movie really gets rolling with the “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” sequence, which is loaded with stellar visual design while aging Elton from a child to young adult. This film is a visual treat, a key point that assists in setting this apart from most biopics.

Rocketman is about as good as Hollywood biopics can be, mixing the rather dark details of Elton John’s personal life with the extravagant styling of his public image. Taking a step back from realism really sells the actual story here, and hopefully future musician-based biopics take inspiration. Just as important, this is a mainstream LGBT film that really explores sexual identity as an aspect of the subject’s life without becoming fixated. Elton John has always stood as a definitive gay icon; Rocketman reminds us that he too struggled along the way while offering hope for a brighter future.

4 Stars Out of 5

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