Rocketman is not a movie, at least not to me.
Anyone who writes about movies does it because they love movies and will, and should, assess any given picture as a film. We don’t generally question, at least in this form, whether we are altogether objective, but it’s none too often a subject comes along superseding even our affinity with cinema.
I’ve listened to Elton John as long as I’ve listened to music. To say it’s been a soundtrack to my life is an understatement and without embellishment the man’s discography is my very favourite. That I’m a bigger Elton John fan than a movie fan means no small thing when a film about his life comes along.
This biopic cannot be assessed by this author as easily as any other, for the simple matter of seeing Elton’s songs writ large on screen amidst high production values and an able star (more on this later) in and of itself is no little joy to behold. For Rocketman is not just a movie; it’s cyclical, near unabating cavalcade of greatest hits (and some obscure ones ‘Here and There’) just as much resembling every one of Elton’s last six Australian tours and no doubt decades worth of concerts.
Something between Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, numbers are alternately relayed as background tracks, as if we’re watching an extravagant musical or otherwise via Elton (Taron Egerton) and co going about their regular lives; whether it be pitching to a producer or nutting out tunes on the piano. Director Dexter Fletcher imparting this story with a hybrid, at times surrealist recreation of the thrill fans will remember when first seeing Watford’s favourite son live, here’s hopefully as objective and impassioned an account you will get from someone who thinks you should stop reading and cue up ‘Madman Across The Water.’
First thing’s first; Taron. It’s not the first time he and Elton (here serving as Executive Producer) nor Producer Matthew Vaughan have worked together. Fans of the Kingsman films might recognise one particular costume paying homage to their first collaboration.
Well chosen, Egerton, in his best performance to date, doesn’t just look the part but earns the tagline ‘Taron Egerton is Elton John.’ Mimicking the star’s mannerisms to a tee and his spitting image in several of the most outlandish costumes, while much of the film requires dramatic turns Egerton’s contagious sense of fun in the recreations of several well-known numbers is the cinematic equivalent in every sense of Elton leaping on a piano and baring a grin at his audience.
Jamie Bell as long-time lyrical partner Bernie Taupin (as South Park fans might fondly recall) does well; another development in what is an increasingly interesting career. Rocketman requires a villain and like Bohemian Rhapsody (the comparisons don’t stop there) casts an ex-Game of Thrones star (Richard Madden) as a questionable manager.
Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh are more than decent as the parents, though both are largely sounding boards for whatever is going on in Elton’s life at any given stage. Elton’s decades-long collaboration with lead guitarist Davey Johnstone, uncontroversial and unsurprisingly ill-befitting of a biopic that requires drama, like most his other lengthy stage partners are permitted a token average of about one screen grab.
Now to the music. Without changing the lyrics, and the filmmakers generally err on the side of sacrilege, there aren’t a lot of singles that squarely fit into a retelling of anyone’s life. Opting, again, like Bohemian Rhapsody, to almost always defer to numbers that appeared on one or more Greatest Hits volumes (‘Border Song’ being a notable exception), they land about half the time.
Opening with ‘The Bitch is Back’ in what is as nonsensical a creative decision as Lily James’ rendition of ‘Kissed The Teacher,’ Rocketman reaches its heights in the film’s earliest scenes with the spectacularly promising staging of ‘I Want Love,’ the only later era Elton clanger meriting inclusion. Not simply supremely endearing but sensical within proceedings, it is nearly matched by only ‘Honky Cat’ and the ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ duet. The early addition of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” if making little sense, is still spectacularly fun and serves the same purpose as Elton’s generally predictable placement of the tune in the opening stages of his shows.
The computer-generated scenery in this sequence and a couple more, amidst a film largely resonant for its strong use of colour and costuming in real life environments, regretfully wreaks of some of the more infamous deaths of cinema moments.
‘Tiny Dancer’ is shoehorned in among so many others in relation to a fleeting character simply because it ‘had to’ be there, neglecting more appropriate scores from the likes of ‘Tumbleweed Connection,’ ‘Captain Fantastic’ and of all things Elton’s debut studio album ‘Empty Sky.’ Opting to portray ‘Crocodile Rock’ as Elton introduces himself to an American audience, when every pair of shoes slowly rise off the ground in Rocketman’s most utilised promotional image, Fletcher strikes the right blend between that hyperrealist and euphoric, recreating what will be intrinsic to those sitting in the 22nd row the world over.
Fletcher showing a consummate, distinctive filmmaking flair in only two other scenes; the rip-roaring rendition of ‘Pinball Wizard’ to whirling camera-work, editing and effects thrillingly matching the song’s pace. It is otherwise only at the very end, in a heartfelt recreation of one of Elton’s most famous video clips, that all involved not only shine their brightest but look like they’re having the fun everyone should have handed the unique prospects of an Elton biopic. Why filmmakers always leave these sorts of sequences to the end and never take these leaps throughout I’ll never know.
Rocketman is regrettably at it’s worst in the staging of the titular number, taking place within a swimming pool as Elton sings with his childhood self. Groundless and egregiously indiscernible in what is otherwise a straightforward if oft-lightly surrealist narrative, the sequence soon heedlessly morphs into a stadium scene with an all too literal interpretation of the lyrics. Doing so for a standalone visual gag that takes us stars away from what long since established itself as a temperately fantastical flick, it’s like is confusedly never repeated.
Too taking place on the heels of Elton’s most overrated number ‘Bennie and the Jets,’ the whole chapter is an aberration in what is still a more hit than miss musical.
Far above and beyond this, the entire number revolves around one of the darkest chapters in Elton’s life and in the film’s most reckless advent does not reckon with the sensitivity of what it is depicting. Curiously, the decision was not made to utilise ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ at this juncture, the stated, apparent intent of the song (among other unused Elton numbers) being better reflective of the subject the filmmakers here chose to explore. Seeking to so quickly (as the flick often does) move to the next greatest hit, given the creatives sought to pursue this confronting avenue so blatantly it was a poor mistake not to address it requisitely or properly account for its aftermath even if it meant sacrificing one or more of the myriad other strands.
For chapters in Elton’s life come and go; the crew seemingly intent on telling as much as possible. His first marital relationship and wedding (which actually took place in Sydney) are confined to mere minutes, while other hugely significant moments elapse in as little time. Making the choice to confine the narrative to the first stages of Elton’s career and never travelling down the likes of ‘Peachtree Road’ is not a problem in and of itself, this era proving just as interesting for Elton as any other, it’s just that the form has been done and done and done.
Again, we return to Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s no surprise that Rocketman suffers many of the same pitfalls with Fletcher in charge here; the Director having been credited as same on the Queen biopic.
Rocketman fares better for not trying to cram the entirety of Elton’s life into two hours, yet still attempts to cover everything from it’s chosen era and there simply isn’t enough time from a narrative standpoint. The film does however manage to fit in Elton winning over a cynical record producer with a fresh style, flashing sign-heavy montages hurling us forward years in time, informative text on Elton’s achievements immediately prior to those credits rolling (interposed with the performers’ real life counterparts just to show us how well they’ve done) and, as if this wasn’t enough, the whole narrative is framed by Elton relaying his story via flashback to the dozen odd others in rehab.
Not forgetting to namecheck everyone from The Beatles to Neil Young, with a recording session thrown in with Kiki Dee for good measure as we’ve ticked off almost everyone else already, the reference to Leon Russell given ‘The Union’ is somewhat more digestible. Hitting just about every biopic cliché, though never so wincingly nor often as the treatment proffered Freddie Mercury, speaking from experience this is not a film you’d want to watch within years of catching Walk Hard.
Elton fans, casual and most dedicated, will relish repeat watches pure and simple. If you’re not into the music, unfortunately there isn’t much in the retelling to recommend it.
Rocketman is in cinemas from May 30
Rocketman on Film Fight Club