If Bohemian Rhapsody’s success and critical (not-quite) failure have proved anything, it’s that artistic quality, authenticity, and respect for the real person are not necessary for a biographical musical film to be profitable. But would success spoil Elton John (again)?
Rocketman, produced by Sir Elton himself (like Bohemian Rhapsody, which was overseen by the remaining members of Queen), manages to preserve both the greatest showman’s personalized version of events, and the spectacular appeal of the 21st century rock biopic. Director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) dodge the trappings of the genre not with finesse but tact.
Elton Hercules John—né Reginald Dwight—has followed the ideal rise-and-fall-and-stabilize arc for a mainstream narrative film, with all the key dramatic ingredients arranged nicely in a line: a lower-class upbringing in 1960s London, the God-given gift of a perfect ear, a Billboard-charting song at age 23, and a long struggle with figuring out and accepting his identity. The themes are all right there for the taking, and as is common in this sort of movie, the singer’s many hits help Fletcher tell his story. John’s songs are notoriously unambiguous in their topics—his ballad “Your Song” famously proved a good vehicle for Ewan McGregor’s character’s romantic declaration to Nicole Kidman’s character in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!—and their lyrics provide him with a way for his onscreen avatar to express himself quite literally. Sadly Robert Downey Jr., the true Rocket Man himself, doesn’t return to lip-synch to “I Want Love,” but the tune unambiguously communicates the lack of affection that stifles everyone in John’s childhood home, as not only his younger incarnation but also his distant father, his uninterested mother, and his caring grandmother sing it longingly.
The songs, however, are not enough. Not only does Fletcher expose the subtext of John’s life with the musical segments, he also has all the key players speak only in declarative statements: Think of Kenan Thompson in They Came Together saying “that’s the point of view I represent” and multiply it across a whole movie. As if in an old play, John’s grandmother reassures him that going to the Royal Academy of Music requires him to “fake it till he makes it;” later, a musician tells him to “kill who he was born to be to become who he wants to be.” There is no subtext to be deciphered and every struggle is made literal. I tried to read between these campy lines as though this were a Douglas Sirk melodrama, searching for a commentary on performativity or on the biopic genre itself, but realized soon enough that they were simply very wide lines that took all the space on the page. Rocketman does the intellectual work of figuring out what John’s life story means all by itself, letting the audience off the hook to enjoy the tale more simply, directly, and emotionally.
Interestingly, this direct and unequivocal explanation also applies to John’s tentative discovery of his sexual identity. While Bohemian Rhapsody for the most part ignored or flattened out Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality, Rocketman makes John’s troubled feelings toward his queerness a central topic and lays it out in plain sight. After only a few visual hints—i.e., a teenaged John looking long(ingly) at a young man during the “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” musical sequence—a character seems to blatantly mock Bohemian Rhapsody’s coyness by calling out the young pianist and singer. A line like “your friend is a homosexual” needs no interpretation. It’s with the same straightforwardness that, later on, John’s drug and alcohol addictions are addressed, even if Fletcher avoids explicit images of sexual intercourse or substance abuse and stays just far enough from Walk Hard territory.
Rocketman’s style is in line with this strategic cajoling of the spectators and critics. John’s interiority as he experiences success on stage or suicidal thoughts in his Los Angeles villa is represented via bouts of fantasy that also literalize their own significance. A life-changing performance at the Troubadour club makes the superstar and his audience float off the ground for a few seconds; submerged at the bottom of his swimming pool, he meets his younger self to sing of his isolation. Special effects further underline the points being made—yes, he actually becomes a Rocketman—and simultaneously protect Rocketman from being understood as a fully truthful representation of John’s journey. Likewise, Taron Egerton’s performance fluctuates between realism and clownish exaggeration, while his singing is just good enough for the evocative, theatrical interpretations that the script requires of him. Unlike Rami Malek, he can’t be accused of cheating, but neither can he be praised for acting just like his model because that’s not his goal; he is at once authentic, and not really to be compared with the incomparable original.
Ironically, however, while the spectators are carefully considered throughout, John’s own audience is left out of the picture: There’s little demonstration of his star power back in the 1970s and ’80s, apart from supporting characters stating his greatness. A side effect of trying to control and contain the narrative too much is that it leaves little space for the music itself. As easy as it is to watch, Fletcher’s film is rarely transporting, too concerned as it is with being sincere and untouchable. Ideally, a movie like this would either fully sweep its audience up in a rush of emotion or else take them out of their comfort zones. Rocketman does neither. I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind, that I put down in words how little it matters that it’s in the world.