Rated R for drugs, sex, and rock and roll. It's a music biopic. You should know what you are getting into. There's plenty of language to go around. Sure, it's Elton John. It's a very specific kind of vice. We're not having much on screen full nudity. But there are moments that are plenty sexual, but a lot of that is implied. Is there violence? There's nothing actively violent, but a lot of people treat each other like dirt. I don't know if you should be surprised by this, but there are moments where you are going to get really sad about how humanity treats one another. R.
DIRECTOR: Dexter Fletcher
I am admitting that I'm partially wrong about the music biopic. When I saw a trailer for Rocketman while sitting down for Bohemian Rhapsody (I may be inaccurate on my memory, but I feel like that happened) my eyes rolled hard. I knew what was coming. Now, if you read my commentary on Bohemian Rhapsody, I pointed out that the music biopic is played out. It's been done and it has been done to formula. I was partially right about that and I was partially wrong about, and I thank Rocketman for making me partially wrong. I don't know what it is about the music business that makes everyone have the same origin story. Small time kid makes it big because of talent and then everyone treats them like a commodity, causing said kid to experiment with anything that can help him escape. (Wait, I may have just answered my own question there.) But at least Rocketman does it a little bit differently.
I applaud everything about the creation of this movie. If I didn't know better, I swear that Rocketman was an adaptation of a Broadway play just the way it was formatted. With Bohemian Rhapsody, I got really mad at how everything was paint-by-numbers. We got the music of Queen, which was rad, but it was almost to establish a chronology. The people came for the music, but it really let us know what period of Queen we were looking at. But with Rocketman, the music acts like a musical. Not always. This makes for some probably problematic storytelling moments because the lyrics had to fit with the events happening on screen. But I like that surreal world of the musical that Bohemian Rhapsody just completely avoided. The world of Elton John became something magical. I like Elton as much as the next fella. I love "Your Song" and "Tiny Dancer". But the other songs are just fine for me. But placing these songs in the context of these life events, the world became so much bigger in that moment. Tonally, it creates a weird environment for everything that was happening on screen. Elton John almost became a fictional character by the end of the movie, despite the fact that the film reminds me time and again that Elton John is a contemporary performer. There's something distancing about the biopic. It is really hard to treat the person as real, despite the fact that the fact that they are a real person is clear from moment one. I suppose it is the artificiality of cinema that kind of distances real people. I have an easier time bonding with a fictional character because I never have that voice in the back of my head nagging me that "It probably didn't happen this way." But Dexter Fletcher, with the use of the musical format, kind of allows for artificiality to work to his advantage. Because it is Taron Egerton, the guy from Kingsmen, and because the world of Rocketman is larger than life (but smaller than Moulin Rouge), the whole "It probably didn't happen this way" is subverted. Of course the reality of Elton John didn't happen beat-by-beat. Instead, we get insight into Elton John being bigger than anything else we could have known.
There's something poetically freeing about that whole thing, when looking at the life of Elton John. Rocketman stresses the two worlds of Elton John. There's Elton John, the performer, all glitz and glamour. Then there's Reggie Dwight. The movie, smartly enough, really focuses on Reggie Dwight. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Elton John is a fantastic stage performer. There is no moment where he completely botched a performance. Again, I'm not an Elton John fan, so if someone wants to correct me on that, please do. But the story isn't about the persona of Elton John and how it got better and better. The formula was there from that first performance at the Troubadour. Elton's costumes got bigger and more elaborate, but that basic foundation was laid there. Instead, we have this battle with who Reggie Dwight is. At times, Elton hates Reggie. Then, Reggie is the central character. It's a tale of artificiality and how we have no idea what truth actually is anymore. So when these song lyrics end up being autobiographical, despite the fact that Elton John apparently didn't write his own lyrics, it becomes a commentary on the truth. Is anything that we're witnessing accurate? Is accuracy important? We get the story of Elton John, but through a very specific set of rad sunglasses. I think there has to be a better way to say all of this. Because Elton John is so artificial, does that make Reggie artificial too? Reggie is supposed to be our representative of truth that, the very fact that there is something constructed about him makes me question reality. But that questioning of reality isn't a bad thing in this case? It never puffs up Elton John in a way to say, "Golly, look what he went through" with the swell of the strings and the crescendo. It's more of a statement on the fictional lives that we all lead. After all, Reggie does say, "I am Elton John."
I don't know if I was going crazy or I just took someone's Facebook post as gospel truth. I read somewhere on the Internet that people were upset about Taron Egerton's casting and that he didn't sound even remotely like Elton John. Again, I have no idea what the true version of Elton John is. I know a bunch of his songs, but I can only sing the lyrics for two of his songs all the way through. Egerton sold himself to me through this movie. I don't know why I thought he could only be the Kingsmen guy, but he's not. Part of that comes from the novelty of Kingsmen. I treat Kingsmen as a parody of Bond cinema. Mark Millar's The Secret Service, which was the source material for Kingsmen was a send up of the spy genre. As part of that, anything connected to that lived in the world of parody. But Egerton's performance in this is great. I'm repeating myself and I hate myself for doing it, but I didn't care about Elton John before this movie. The movie made me actually care. Great biopics get me to listen to the band's music. Egerton made me actually reexamine my appreciation for Elton John. I mean, I didn't actually go out and buy any albums, but Elton John went from famous singer to rock and roller for me. But Egerton's performance only works because of the greater context that it is in. The movie's aesthetic and choices work fabulously, stressing the importance of this artist on our culture. The gutsiest choice is the ending choice, placing Egerton in the "I'm Still Standing" music video. Do you understand the Wikipedia and YouTube hole I fell down after that choice? The movie does so much to push you into the world of Elton John that I loved it. It's actually kind of weird that my wife didn't really jump on board considering that she's the musical buff here. Maybe it's my cautionary approach to musicals that actually got me to enjoy something that I had minimal investment in.
Rocketman is what Bohemian Rhapsody should have been. It's a way gutsier movie, despite having the same narrative beats that Bohemian Rhapsody provided. Music biopics need to be something special to separate themselves from the herd and Rocketman is kind of a master class in doing that exact thing. It's bizarre that the elements were there before hand and it took this film to really nail it.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.