The astronomical success of Bohemian Rhapsody means more rock & roll biopics tumbling down the pipeline, an exciting trend for music fans. But Hollywood likes a sure thing, so when a film finds a winning formula, they don’t veer off course. The new Elton John biopic/musical, Rocketman, does veer off — way off — which should be a good thing, but it also discarded the most important ingredients for this kind of vehicle: a concise narrative and actual character development. The filmmakers assumed the great music alone would make the rocket fly. It doesn’t.
Rocketman opens with Elton John (Taron Egerton) strutting down a celestially-lit hallway, donning one of his outrageous stage costumes. When John enters an AA meeting in said wardrobe (a forced comic scenario if there ever was one), we already know we’re in trouble. Where Bohemian Rhapsody at least tried to explore Freddie Mercury’s career with some gravity and authenticity, Rocketman pinballs between an exuberant La La Land-style musical, an MTV videoesque fever dream and a screwball comedy. It possesses a fascinating sincerity, but the narrative feels imbalanced. For a good part of the film, it’s hard to tell if the filmmakers are even taking their subject seriously (which is odd considering John himself was reportedly involved). By the time it’s clear they do, the whole affair is bloated by melodrama.
The over-the-top approach works in terms of production design, wardrobe and look of the film, at least. Rocketman does take you back to the ’70s — a decade imbued with style, ambiguity and excess. And chronology-wise, it hits all its marks (something Rhapsody didn’t). We watch Elton John grow up in a small English town with an obtuse father and belligerent mother, as he takes piano lessons and dreams of stardom. Soon, he meets his lifelong songwriting compatriot Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). After his breakthrough show at the Troubadour, he skyrockets to fame, enters a torrid affair with his manager John Reid (an excellent Richard Madden), struggles with his homosexuality and hits bottom with alcohol and cocaine.
The film’s trajectory is rushed and farcical, and it all bustles through the years of John’s success much too quickly. Even the concert scenes lack texture, clarity or excitement, and some of the other sequences are so painfully staged and fake-feeling it’s difficult to penetrate the gloss for anything real or human. Though the film has received deserved kudos for being the first major studio venture to include gay male sex scenes, these are as empty as everything else. Egerton is quite good, but he’s left with the task of excavating a discernible persona from a script that simply doesn’t have one. First, John’s a vulnerable lad just trying to make it, then suddenly he’s a snarling, drug-addled rock star. Dropping some of the musical numbers and focusing on his transformation would have been more insightful and more enjoyable for everyone.
OK, but at least we get to hear Elton John’s amazing music, right? Well, sort of. The songs are peppered throughout the movie without a care for when they were actually recorded. And you hardly ever get to hear the real John’s voice. The actors belt out the classics throughout. I found this the biggest disappointment of all.
Music biopics tend to be predictable, but I love them, especially if I love the artist. Like many, I’m an Elton John fan who doesn’t know a lot about the man. I hoped this movie might enlighten me. But when I watch a 12-year-old actor try to sing a classic while the townsfolk dance behind him like a rock ‘n’ roll version of Oliver, I don’t leave the theater any wiser about one of our greatest music artists. Nobody does.
It’s obvious John and the director were trying for something different, and in that sense, they succeeded. But somehow this movie has no heart, even though the filmmakers go to incredible lengths to convince you it does. The subject comes off as more of a cartoon than a real person. Without a grasp of the protagonist, a film that could have soared is just a frustrating and flat portrait, with great looks but no soul, all glitter and no gold.