Biopics are tricky. Just ask 2019 Oscar winning films Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody. For the former, the issue is telling the tale of a Black musician through the lens of his White companion. For the latter, the writers reconstructed the history of the subject to suit the needs of the medium. Both films featured fantastic performances from the cast, yet both fell flat in successfully capturing the subject matter in a faithful, honest way. Writer Lee Hall (Billy Elliott) and director Dexter Fletcher found an incredible way to avoid both of these pitfalls in the poignant and bittersweet Rocketman by leaning into the fantastical essence of the subject matter, living legend Elton John. The end result is not a film, but a cinematic experience worthy of the man, his music, and his legacy.
Billed as a musical fantasy, Rocketman is not as interested in the truth as it is conveying emotionality. Think Julie Taymor’s 2007 release Across The Universe, which utilized songs from The Beatles to create a Vietnam War-era musical, or Twyla Tharp’s 2002 Movin’ Out, which combined Billy Joel’s music and interpretive dance to examine the same period of time. In both productions, the songs serve as a means of telling the story, their emotional connection to the audience allowing for a smoother adjustment from how they’re used to hearing the songs. Hall and Fletcher utilize the same approach with Rocketman and it works beautifully, especially considering the telephone-esque approach of the story. Rather than tackling Elton John’s life in a strictly linear fashion, Hall structures the film around Elton recounting his life and defining relationships with his family, writing partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and lover/manager John Reid (Richard Madden). Though lyrics are not Elton’s strength, he leaves that to Bernie, music is and, through the music, the audience is transported into his adolescence on an adventure through his life as Elton remembers it, punctuated by the songs audiences love.
What may startle audiences is the bluntness with which the film approaches Elton’s story. It pulls no punches when depicting his version of his childhood, his relationships, and his experiences in the music industry. For a two-hour film, it can’t cover everything, yet it feels incredibly complete. It’s not the impeccable semi-recreations of Elton’s various outfits, pedestrian or performance, by Julian Day (Bohemian Rhapsody) and it’s not the singing by Taron Egerton (Eddie the Eagle), who absolutely disappears into Elton, but the unabashed rawness and openness on display which creates a sensation of conclusion on a life still being lived. In an interview, Egerton mentioned spending several days with Elton and his husband, research which undoubtedly assisted in his transformative performance, yet it’s not just the research which audiences see on screen. Beyond the insight is complete trust. Looking at who’s involved in the creation of Rocketman, it’s easy to connect several dots. Matthew Vaughn served as one of the producers on this film, but he also wrote and directed the two Kingsman films, both which starred Egerton and one which featured Elton. Additionally, Fletcher’s performed in several of Vaughn’s films and directed the 2015 biopic Eddie the Eagle, which Egerton starred in, as well. Recognizing that so many of these individuals already possess a working relationship makes Rocketman’s vulnerability as it explores the aspects of Elton that many are not familiar with – the drugs, anonymous sex, bulimia, and more – feel far more earnest. This is particularly important in depicting Elton’s sexuality, as well as his struggle with being comfortable in his skin. Whereas other biopics might shy away from displays of homosexuality, to skim over it, being such a strong part of who Elton is as a person and how it impacted his work, would not only be disingenuous, but a disservice.
Like most biopics, there’s a desire to cater to audience expectations. As noted, Rocketman doesn’t care about what audience’s expect and that gives Fletcher and company the freedom to do some truly amazing things. The man who would be Elton John, born Reginald Dwight, grew up in Pinner, Middlesex, England, displaying incredible musical talent. The transition from burgeoning teen to adulthood is executed through a wondrous and playful rendition of “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” wherein Kit Connor as younger Dwight begins playing in a pub before running out into the street, avoiding cars and people, before diving through a hole in a fence where a carnival is underway, only for Egerton to emerge and continue the number. In a series of smartly edited tracking shots, “Saturday Night” is a mixture of teenage rebellion and youthful spirit as carnival goers join Dwight in one dance after another. During Elton’s first performance at the Troubadour in L.A., we we see him as an artist and performer come alive lifting the whole audience off the ground. Is this remotely true? Perhaps emotionally, but not certainly literally. Yet that’s just one of many ways in which Rocketman transcends the typical in favor of the magical. Staging of moments like these, even though it depicts Elton singing “Crocodile Rock” two years prior to release, plays into what the audience felt, or certainly what Fletcher wants the cinema audience to feel, during this American performance. In a linear approach, playing the song so early would likely rankle Elton fans, but by using the songs as emotional beats within the story, serves to create an unforgettable experience.
Fans of “Rocketman,” for example, will find the song taking on an incredibly new meaning given its use in the film. Impressively, the song serves multiple aspects of storytelling, but the one worth discussing as to avoid spoilers is the way the end of the song is used to transition. Throughout the film, songs are used to convey emotionality and, sometimes, transitions between locations or psychology. The end of “Rocketman” finds Elton riding in a jet chatting with Bernie, Elton’s head smoking as though from blasting off in a rocket. Once more, by leaning into the fantastical, Fletcher’s able to use the ridiculous in ways which bring light into the darkness and vice versa. The toying with reality becomes particularly engaging the worse into his drug addiction Elton becomes. On more than one occasion, he wakes up unaware of his location, yet Fletcher also uses Elton’s growing discombobulation to transition scenes. One such moment begins with Elton out to dinner with one individual, leaves to go to the restroom, and finds himself returning to join someone else entirely. Typically, by forgoing the traditional in favor of strange or artistic transitions, as well as eschewing truthful chronology would bring a film crashing down. Within Rocketman, these touches only make it soar higher, the joys made grander and the sorrow all the more devastating.
The depth of layers applied within Rocketman could take ages to explore and discuss. What director Dexter Fletcher, writer Lee Hall, the cast, the designers, and choreographer crafted is undeniably bittersweet. It’ll make you smile until your face aches, cry tears of joy and pain, and inspire a need to revisit a catalogue which spans decades. If you’re looking for truth, you’ll get some, but what Rocketman bestows is more than truth. It’s pure musical wonder. So strap in and prepare to blast off on a ride with Rocketman, a truly unforgettable experience.
For information on Elton John, including his music, philanthropy, and final farewell tour, head to his official website.
In theaters May 31st, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.