Growing up with his cold father and self-absorbed mother, a young Elton John finds refuge, imagination, and identity in his musical gifts. The lack of love he didn't received as a child, homophobia, and toxic relationships turns into a devastating recipe for substance abuse as he rises in the music industry. (Read the full review below)
Musically, the film combines elements that contemporary musicals haven’t attempted in a long time. The song and dance numbers move the chapters of John’s life along by mixing practical effects and CGI (mostly for concert arenas) set to all of his greatest hits. Moments that could’ve been a standard “stand here and lip sync” sequence or a dramatic montage transforms into all-out metaphor – time standing still as John and the crowd jump in the air during his debut at the Troubadour singing Crocodile Rock; his sexual addiction as he dives into a sea of naked bodies to Benny and the Jets; attempting suicide by jumping in a pool and seeing his childhood self singing Rocketman; to name few. Every song intimately shows exactly what made John shoot for stardom as well his personal life falling apart. Each one adds a compelling dimension to what a musical can be and will undoubtedly leaving musical fans loving how each sequence is new and different.
As imaginative as the songs are used, their overuse becomes an excuse for the story to lack a typical biopic plot. Aging John from a kid to his thirties remains on track throughout – the story merely jaunts backwards from John reflecting on his life in the middle of an AA meeting. Every musical sequence ends the same way it begins: interjecting reality for a minute or so – long enough for you to feel invigorated by the song before John comes back down to Earth. Other elements come into play that rush and confuse the order of music and his events. Splicing up songs out of order from when they were released and glossing over/altering/ignoring facts about his life doesn’t offer the audience enough time to digest what’s going before another song is launched.
Having been encouraged by the man himself to give his own interpretation, Taron is easily a sheer powerhouse. There’s an expectation in biopics for the lead and supporting characters to age and show how the story moves forward, and Taron is all-in for us to see John’s youth and vigor, self-loathing and exhaustion, the continual abuse of his body and talent. For an icon as expressive and bold as John is, Taron never feels like a caricature or that the arc is too young or too old for him to carry. Next to him, Jamie Bell as John’s songwriting companion Bernie Taupin exudes the most chemistry. Their charming friendship shines more than any other relationship in the film, letting us in on their humble beginnings and what has made their partnership endure. Everyone else in the cast are just there (Richard Madden as John's abusive boyfriend) or miscast (Bryce Dallas Howard as John's vain mother). They don't truly feel used to the best of their ability or they feel wrong for the role.
What balances the film is how it takes the typical rise and fall of an icon and morphs it into the rise and the fall, falling, falling, falling, and picking John back up again. After Rocketman kicks off with John’s stint in rehab, fully dressed in a glittery devil costume, his life disintegrates both figuratively and literally. His music bares it all as John faces his own demons, and the triumph it takes for him to overcome depression, self-loathing, homophobia, alcoholism, sex and drug addiction. Biopics often explore substance addiction through a formula of using and abusing, maybe a withdrawal scene and then sobriety. As flashy as Rocketman is, the story truly tries to show where his problems stem from and why, and the vital reconciliation he has to do in order to start over again. By the end, John’s ability to remain sober for twenty-eight years is a victory regardless if the movie hits some wrong notes along the way. It's difficult to not feel the true celebration of John's life when the movie ends.
As the director of the more coherent elements to Bohemian Rhapsody, Dexter Fletcher didn’t intend for this to be a mere Wikipedia page you could just read. Rocketman isn't necessarily a film, musical or a biopic. There’s too much music to make it a musical and not enough story to make it a cohesive biopic. The two genres aren't on equal footing each other, and while Elton John served as executive producer, the film doesn’t have a strong enough creative check and balance system. As wonderfully bold as Fletcher's vision is, it almost burns itself out.
Rating for the film: ★★☆
Have you seen Rocketman? What do you think?