by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 86% Certified Fresh
PLOT: A musical fantasy about Elton John’s (Egerton) breakthrough years in the 1970s.
Much more so than Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman feels like a genuine musical. On top of that, it also provides much more insight into the lead character than Rhapsody did. I did feel that it was stretching a bit, trying a bit too hard to pluck the old heartstrings towards the end of the film. But the fact remains that I was more invested in the Elton John character than Freddie Mercury.
I think a big part of that improvement is due to the way Rocketman is structured. The entire film is played out in a series of flashbacks, ostensibly during a group therapy session at a rehab clinic. I say “ostensibly” because, in the opening moments of the film, he apparently walks into the session moments after abandoning his Madison Square Garden concert. He is in full Elton John regalia: a flaming orange and red outfit complete with spreading wings on his back and devil horns on his head. Through most of the film (after his meteoric rise to fame), he will do his best to live up to the devilish nature of this costume.
(This structure is not new…see, for example, De-Lovely, in which Cole Porter defends his life to a mysterious figure at the moment of his death.)
I have said over and over again, on Facebook and to my fellow cinephiles, how I cannot handle movies or TV shows with loathsome characters as the leads. I can never and will never watch the TV show Mad Men. No power on earth will ever compel me to sit through another screening of What About Bob? If someone had shot Jennifer Lawrence’s character in American Hustle with a shotgun, I would have cheered.
And yet here is Rocketman, featuring a lead character who, in the course of the movie…let me see…gets himself addicted to drugs and alcohol, succeeds in alienating anyone and everyone close to him, attempts suicide, gets the venue city name wrong during a massive concert (that’s a BIG no-no), ditches the people who made him famous in the first place out of misplaced affection for his smarmy manager/lover, and marries a woman (out of nowhere) knowing full well he is gay.
He does all of these things, and yet I was still on his side. Weird, right? The last time I felt that kind of empathy for a troubled lead character was in Ray. (I’m not equating the two films, just remarking on their similarity.) If I had to draw a line connecting those two films, and why I was able to handle their anti-social tendencies, the first things that come to mind are their music and their backstories. The music produced by Ray Charles and Elton John (and Elton’s inseparable collaborator, Bernie Taupin) is on such a level that it was intriguing to me to watch their characters evolve, to see where such music comes from, and how much suffering is sometimes (always?) necessary for greatness to be achieved.
Another aspect of Rocketman’s success is the way unique visual tricks were used to convey the extreme emotional impact of certain events in Elton John’s life. I’m thinking especially of his first concert at the famed Troubador nightclub in Los Angeles. After a few agonizing seconds of nervous silence, Elton and his band break into “Crocodile Rock”, and when the bouncy chorus begins with its high, ‘50s-esque falsettos, there is a glorious moment when Elton, the band, and the crowd slowly levitate in the air, transported by the music. I can imagine the real Elton John describing that moment in that specific way. Or any number of performers describing their one supremely perfect moment in the spotlight, that one fleeting moment in time when it felt like the world revolved around them and their music, or their monologue, or their pas-de-deux. It’s a magical sequence.
I cannot call Rocketman a perfect biopic. As I mentioned before, it tries a little too hard at the end. There is a bit of speechifying that is intended to get a gut-wrenching emotional reaction, but which I felt was a little too much of a muchness. But it is an improvement on Bohemian Rhapsody. I got a much fuller picture of Elton John’s life before he became THE Elton John, and as such, I was much more invested in how things turned out.