“A film relatively inventive within the boundaries that it has set, though let down by the limited ground it covers in ways alternately engaging and conventional.”
by Ken Bakely
When considering the subgenre (or the term) of the “musical biopic,” Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman almost seems conceived as an argument in semantics, in that it combines choreographed musical sequences within the realms of a conventionally staged rise, fall, and rise narrative of Elton John. As has been observed, the film appears tailor-made for a stage adaptation; regardless of whether such a thing happens, bursts of creativity, in seeing fantastical digressions in which John’s catalogue is performed by the movie’s characters to underscore each key development in his life, tries to inject some much-needed life into the potential of a genre so otherwise dull. Indeed, perhaps these are two discordant approaches that ultimately sell each other short: the music only brings further attention to the generic nature of a mediocre dramatic structure, and the finer moments and performances that shine through said formula are superfluous to what we’ve seen expressed in fine song and dance. In either case, it’s still a film relatively inventive within the boundaries that it has set, though let down by the limited ground it covers in ways alternately engaging and conventional.
Yet there are constants, namely Taron Egerton’s impressive accomplishments in the lead role. Portraying John from the early ’70s to the mid ’80s, Egerton’s ability to move between and throughout the movie’s various parts demonstrates considerable range at every turn. He guides us through emotional arcs, musical performances, and varying dynamics with others – from an enduring collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to an eventually toxic personal and professional relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden), to complicated attempts to work through a volatile past with his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard). Lee Hall’s script is particularly interested in the self-destructive tolls that come from an immense rise to worldwide fame; Rocketman uses a framing device in which nearly everything we see comes from Elton telling his life story in rehab.
Here, the chronology of the exposition-heavy biopic roadmap is purposefully loose, as it’s just a device for advancing the songs, except for when it feels the other way around, in what often amounts to an ad hoc sensation. It’s hard to believe that the same movie which has ecstatically shown Elton performing “Crocodile Rock” while he and his audience float in midair during the chorus also contains a sequence in which a barrage of archival headlines scroll across the screen, overlaid atop shots of increasingly large crowd sizes, as if to convey that this Elton John guy might be getting famous, in case you weren’t sure. What makes it all the more odd is that, because of its disinterest in recreating accurate timelines or exploring major life milestones in anything more than the most abstract detail, Rocketman doesn’t seem interested in being a detailed study of Elton John’s life. The character of Elton, regardless of how nuanced Egerton’s acting is, is something of a mystery. After all, the aforementioned framing device assumes that the entire film exists under the veil of telling instead of showing, and it’s a feeling that carries throughout, since the deeper profiling that one would expect is absent. There’s no escaping a sensation of duality, as the movie’s halves never get along all that well – when one is more inspired than its counterpart, the successes on one end stand to emphasize the staid nature of the other.
But when it is good – and it often is, at least in individual scenes and sequences – it brushes at the curtain of a better future for its entire genre. It’s a future not bound by stuffiness in structure or tone. Performances and scenes can live and breathe as their own dramatic creations, and not merely have to follow a rigid arc in which everything wraps up right in time for the “where are they now” montage at the end. LGBTQ characters can have sex lives depicted with honesty and directness, instead of cowardly camera pans away that seek to erase reality. This movie doesn’t come close to living up to all of these promises (and yes, it seriously does give us a title card epilogue, in case you wondered where Elton John is these days), but it indicates their possibilities in its best moments – which is more than one can say about another recent film about a British rock icon on which Dexter Fletcher worked, which will go unnamed for the sake of retaining our sanity. With Rocketman, he hasn’t been to the future yet, but he’s seen a glimpse, and hopefully, it won’t be a long, long time until we’re there.