It only occurred to me as I sat down to watch Rocketman that I actually knew very little about Elton John. I knew the songs, of course – it speaks to the ubiquity of his music that I recognised every single one of two-dozen or so tunes that appeared in Dexter Fletcher’s film, having never owned or actively listened to an Elton record – but the man himself? I knew essentially nothing beyond his two defining characteristics: glitzy and gay.
As it turns out, Elton’s life story isn’t too different from your average rock star; a meteoric rise, plenty of broken hearts, plenty of drinks and a whole lot of drugs, too. Thankfully, Rocketman sets itself apart from the average rock star biopic. Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall hew closely to a familiar narrative arc – though, to their credit, they opt for a rise-recovery narrative rather than a tired rise-fall or addiction storyline – but elevate the material by diving off the deep-end into full-blown fantasy. After decades of cookie-cutter music biopics asserting themselves as the “true” (artist-approved) history, it’s refreshing to watch a film that’s more interested in fun than facts.
The fantastical framework is not only a smart storytelling choice – in that it allows for the “it didn’t really happen like this” vibe without being all obnoxious about it, obviating any nitpicks about historical veracity – but a wonderful aesthetic choice, allowing Fletcher to turn the film into a pseudo-musical. After all, the only reason anyone liked the odious Bohemian Rhapsody – which Fletcher finished, and us critics are contractually obligated to mention in our Rocketman reviews – was the reproductions of classic tracks, but here there’s no longer any requirement to frame them in dull studio scenes or CGI-augmented concert reproductions. Right from the get-go, Rocketman steps out as a musical, complete with extras dancing in the street and the like.
Now, anyone who’s been reading my writing for a while would know that when it comes to musicals, I’m agnostic at best. While in theory I love the idea of movies rupturing realism to burst into song, in practice I tend to find myself chafing against both the style of music – showtunes ain’t my thing – and the lyrics, which more often than not outline the emotional subtext with sledgehammer-grade clumsiness. An Elton John musical could’ve easily fallen into this Mamma–Mia-esque trap, but thankfully here the lyrics tend to have a tangential connection to the emotional core of any given scene, allowing Taron Egerton – as Elton – to deftly play against the music and provide real emotional depth to (most) of the musical performances.
Egerton is truly fantastic, by the way. He’s exhibited an undeniable charisma across his early roles, but he takes it to another level here. He effortlessly evokes the look and feel of Elton – in more than a few scenes I wondered if we were being treated to stock footage until Egerton’s face came into focus – and he’s a solid singer besides; not quite on the level of Elton, but more than convincing. It’s somewhat disappointing to realise that Malek’s Oscar win last year likely makes it especially difficult for Egerton to pick up a statuette himself, because this is an Oscar-worthy performance if I’ve ever seen one. Whatever; no-one’s going to mistake him for anything other than a star after this.
On the subject of Malek, a crucial question: just how gay is Rocketman? Pretty fucking gay. It sure doesn’t hurt that the film’s aesthetic leans relentless into corniness and camp (sometimes a little too far; I don’t think we needed to see John literally rocketing into the sky at the conclusion of the “Rocketman” number, an otherwise spectacular and moving setpiece). But it makes the effort to depict Elton John as a gay man, too, whether hooking up with manager John Reid (Richard Madden), crushing on his straight songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), or just getting loose at what appears to be some kind of gay disco.
In retrospect, however, it’s hard to ignore that Rocketman has a decidedly judgemental view on John’s expressions of his sexuality. The one serious hook-up we see, with Reid, turns sour when Reid quickly transforms into an exploitative villain after becoming Elton’s manager. Similarly, it’s a choice to use the aforementioned gay disco as an opportunity for Elton to reflect upon all the terrible things he’s experienced. It’s great that we get big budget biopics with unapologetically gay protagonists, but it seems we’re still going to have to wait for films to be unapologetic about gay sex – certainly gay sex outside of a committed monogamous relationship, anyway. (The credits dutifully celebrate Elton’s marriage to David Furnish, of course.)
All that said …you’re not really thinking about the nuances of how the film engages with queer sexuality while watching it. You’re sitting back and enjoying the film’s sheer audacity or tapping your foot along to the musical numbers. Rocketman is – first and foremost – an irrefutably fun film, and helps to erode some of the apathy around the seemingly endless string of musical biopics.