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Rocketman

Posted June 10, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Rocketman is a biopic of executive producer Elton John, here portrayed by Taron Egerton. It is so much better than Bohemian Rhapsody that comparing the two feels unfair, and yet it’s sadly inevitable. After all, the film was directed by Dexter Fletcher, the same man who finished Rhapsody after Bryan Singer got fired from the project mid-production and ultimately got all the credit anyway. More than that…

  • Both films chronicle the lives of rock icons who were active through the ’70s and ’80s.
  • Both subjects enjoy a meteoric rise to stardom as they nearly kill themselves fucking everything that moves and ingesting every drug known to man.
  • Both films have gay protagonists, struggling to grow into their sexuality in a homophobic time.
  • Both subjects fall in love with seductive assholes who take over as managers, abusing that love and trust so they can leech off the fame and fortune of our star.
  • Both films revolve heavily around the platonic fraternal relationship between their subjects and their straight collaborators.
  • More specifically, both protagonists drive away their closest friends and colleagues due to vanity and greed before they ultimately reconcile.
  • Both subjects rebelled against disapproving fathers, changed their names, reinvented themselves through flashy costumes, and eventually have to reckon with the open question of who they really are.

So with all of this common (and for biopics, frankly boilerplate) ground, what makes Rocketman such a vastly superior film? Well, to start with, the performances are in a totally different league. Rami Malek’s lead performance may have been Oscar-worthy, but Taron Egerton’s starring turn is several magnitudes better. He’s dynamic, transformative, compelling, spellbinding, heartbreaking, destructive… I can throw out superlatives all day, but you get the idea. He’s really that impossibly good, an instant awards contender. We’ve also got Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley playing younger versions of Elton, both of whom are extraordinary musical talents for their ages.

Further kudos are due to Jamie Bell, here playing John’s longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. It’s easily the best performance of his career since Billy Elliot at least.

(Side note: While Elton John wrote the music for the stage adaptation of Billy Elliot, I can’t find any sign that he was involved with the original film. Though Elton John did work with original screenwriter Lee Hall, who returned to write the book and lyrics for the Billy Elliot Broadway show before signing on to write the screenplay here. I presume Elton John met Bell through Hall.)

Hell, I was even impressed with Richard Madden in the role of John Reid, the manager and love interest who ruthlessly breaks our lead character’s heart. It really is impressive how Madden plays a heartless and seductive snake, edging right up to the top without ever going over it.

Alas, while the rest of the supporting cast is hardly awful, none of them reach those same heights. For example, while Bryce Dallas Howard is perfectly sweet in the role of Elton’s mother, casting her to play a Brit was maybe not the best idea. We’ve also got Charlie Rowe, Tate Donovan, Jason Pennycooke, and Celinde Schoenmaker, all of whom leave such a strong impression that I dearly wish they had been given more screen time. Hell, Schoenmaker and Egerton generate a whole movie’s worth of drama in only two scenes, and with barely a line traded between them!

Oh, and getting back to the Bohemian Rhapsody parallels, we’ve got Stephen Graham on hand as a pompous cigar-chomping music mogul. Your mileage may vary with regards to which one you prefer, but I found him to be less buffoonish and slightly more human than Mike Myers’ take on the same.

Last but not least, there’s Steven Mackintosh on hand as Elton’s father. While it’s implied that the man may have been emotionally broken by his time away in military service, it’s clear that he is somehow and for some reason incapable of showing affection for his family. While Mackintosh deserves no shortage of credit for his portrayal of a terrible father who isn’t a monster but simply a broken man, a lot of that is also due to the film’s ingenious use of “I Want Love” to show the dysfunction of Elton’s family.

Which brings me to this movie’s greatest strength, and what makes it probably the greatest biopic in recent memory: The presentation.

The movie opens in 1990, when Elton John — still in full costume! — ditches a concert to go into rehab. He introduces himself as an alcoholic, a drug addict, a sex addict, a shopaholic, he’s got anger management issues, and so on and so forth. Thus the plot flashes back and Elton John takes us through his life story.

There is so much going on here.

First of all, it’s funny to note that every single time we cut back to Elton John in the rehab meeting, he’s lost more and more of his costume. It’s a clever and poignant way to show the artifice of Elton John breaking down, showing more and more of who he is beneath the flashy persona.

Moreover, introducing the character in this way sends the crystal clear message that we are seeing this story through Elton John’s perspective. While most biopics have a more implicit bias in favor of their subjects, this one is right up front in admitting bias. Even better, because we’re seeing Elton John’s life through his own memories and imagination — with the open acknowledgment that he’s an unreliable narrator — we get an intimate, honest, in-depth look at the inner workings of Elton John’s head. Thus the movie shows us the world through his eyes to a successful degree that precious few other biopics have.

Elton John and his husband reportedly put two decades into getting this movie produced, allegedly because they were insistent on an R-rated picture that didn’t compromise the sex and drugs that were a constant of his backstage life. I know there’s a faction that thought Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t do enough to portray Freddie Mercury’s life as a homosexual, and I sure as hell hope they’ll be satisfied with this one. Elton John’s sexuality is brought up early and often, complete with an explicit sex scene between Elton John and John Reid.

As for the drugs… whoo boy. It’s really quite impressive how the movie successfully conveys all the euphoric highs without glamorizing Elton John’s drug use, while also conveying the catastrophic lows without getting too repulsive or bleak. Our lead very nearly kills himself, and the filmmakers portray that in graphic detail without making any excuses, but without going full Requiem for a Dream on us.

The film makes ingenious use of choreography, music, and imagery. It all blends together into these Julie Taymor-esque song breaks that convey the emotional core of each scene and sequence in efficient and spellbinding ways. What’s even better is that the song breaks — coupled with the framing device in which Elton John skips over huge chunks of his life — help to paper over time jumps in such a way that the storytelling seems natural and nothing feels terribly rushed. It’s an inspired solution to a ubiquitous biopic problem.

A jaw-dropping 22 songs are included in the soundtrack, pulled from everywhere in Elton John’s long and prolific career, and that’s not even getting started on the Easter Eggs tucked away here and there. (The nod to “Candle in the Wind” is probably my favorite.) The framing device allows for song breaks to be peppered in all over the place (not just for concerts and recording sessions, as with Rhapsody), and every single one is creatively used in such a way that the songs and the characters bolster each other perfectly. Of course, it helps that none of our actors sing with Elton John’s characteristic mumble, and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics positively soar when we can actually hear them. Put it all together, and Elton John’s music is brought to vivid life like never before.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if they didn’t mention the resplendent costume design. Elton John was always iconic for his flamboyant costumes, and every single performance costume in this picture is utterly magnificent. I don’t even know what else to say about the costumes, they all speak so loudly for themselves. Major kudos and all of the awards for Julian Day, who previously did the costumes for… wait for it… wait for it… you know it’s coming… Bohemian Rhapsody.

So are there any nitpicks? Well, there were a couple of montages that grated on my nerves. Honest to God, there’s a montage in which we see headlines and newspaper clippings flashing across the screen in quick succession. And there’s another montage in which our main character gets high and he flashes back to various people and lectures at various points throughout his life. In such an otherwise inventive movie, with some of the most creative and entertaining time jumps I’ve ever seen in any movie, I was disappointed to see the filmmakers fall back on such threadbare cliches.

Rocketman is everything you could want a musical biopic to be. It’s fun and uplifting, gorgeous and creative, honest and in-depth. The actors are only mediocre at worst and mind-blowingly transcendent at best, featuring career-best performances from Taron Egerton and Jamie Bell. Even when the plot gets rote and the filmmakers go over subjects worn bare by so many other biopics that came before, the phenomenal presentation and overpowering heart makes it all come alive again like new. Even after so many years of hearing Elton John’s greatest hits, the filmmakers presented these songs with such ingenuity and aplomb that I learned to love them like I never had before.

Forget Bohemian Rhapsody — this movie is everything that other one only promised to deliver. Don’t miss it.