Director Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John film is a strong addition to a couple of established filmic traditions. First off it follows the relatively recent trend for jukebox musicals that includes movies like Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia! and Fletcher’s own Sunshine on Leith (although the genre can be traced back past The Blues Brothers and all the way to 42nd Street). It can also be considered a musical biopic though, putting it alongside all kinds of films from The Buddy Holly Story, Walk the Line and What’s Love Got to Do With It to Control, Straight Outta Compton and Fletcher’s own Bohemian Rhapsody (Dexter Fletcher finished the film after credited director Bryan Singer was fired).
This combination of genres is something new. I can’t think of another time where the artist whose back catalogue provides the tunes for the big musical style song and dance numbers is also the subject of the story. I thought maybe A Hard Days Night but that is still really a film with music not a musical. Dreamgirls would fit into this category if they actually admitted it was really about Diana Ross and the Supremes but they are still kind of pretending it’s not so that doesn’t count either. Credit then to all those involved for pushing cinema in a slightly new direction.
You might have got an inkling of what I thought of Rocketman from the final line of that last paragraph. I don’t begrudge them any of this movie’s success and I genuinely do think the film should be celebrated for what it has achieved but I don’t think I have ever seen a more joyless musical. At no point did Rocketman lift my heart or my spirits as this genre can and should do. It’s kind of soul crushing. The problem is that the story of Elton John’s rise to fame told here is not a happy one. He was at best undervalued and at worst unloved by his parents and his developing music career was marred by further emotional abuse and destructive use of drugs and alcohol which lead to depression and self hate. It is all depicted well on screen but I didn’t enjoy it. The one sequence that comes closest to a joyous punch the air moment is a big dance number set to Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting where a young Reg Dwight rocks and swings around the pubs and funfairs of northwest London. The whole narrative is framed by Elton recalling his life while in rehab though, so even this moment is tinged with tragedy. As an audience we can’t get excited about where he’s going as we know the sad place where he ends up.
There clearly are moments of happiness in Elton John’s life but most of these don’t appear to have been dramatic enough to feature in the film. All of his real personal successes; his recovery, his happy marriage, his becoming a parent, his great charity work are resigned to text over the closing credits. There is very little catharsis in the actual film. The final moments show him turning his life around for the better but this is let down by some overly stagey story telling and a song choice that is too on the nose when the rest of the film has actually been properly cinematic with smart employment of those famous songs.
There are parts of the film I liked. The performances are excellent, especially that of Taron Egerton in the lead role. His Elton is never unlikable despite being, on occasion, deeply inconsiderate to some undeserving people. The portrayal of his friendship with Bernie Taupin, played really well by Jamie Bell, is also quite touching. They manage to capture the brilliance of Elton John as and artist too which would have been the worst thing they could have got wrong. The time that they first sing Your Song is a moment worthy of that tune (Tiny Dancer a little less so).
Too be fair, I don’t think anything is wrong with Rocketman. It is no doubt an exaggerated but not a vain version of the events of this man’s life and it never purports to be anything else. There are actually several fantasy sequences so the film not only admits to some embezzlement, it picks it up and runs with it. A quick check of Wikipedia confirms that most of the key events are broadly factual and everything is put together with style and skill so it certainly seems to me that this is the film Fletcher and his team set out to make. I just didn’t enjoy it.
Rocketman is an interesting companion piece to Bohemian Rhapsody. It obviously shares some pedigree and it explores a similar world at a similar time. Music manager John Reid actually appears as a character in both films, here played by Richard Madden and there by his GOT costar Aiden Gillan. It is certainly a tighter and more authentic movie than the recent biopic of Freddie Mercury and Queen but sadly it isn’t as much fun.
It’s something about the way it looked tonight and while I appreciate that sad songs say so much, I couldn’t feel the love.