Rocketman , the recently released biopic of the music superstar, Elton John, will inevitably be compared to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. The two movies are portraits of flamboyantly-dressed gay rock stars from relatively the same era (1970’s and 1980’s) but they also shared the same manager and had the same director, Dexter Fletcher. (Ironically, music manager John Reid was played by two actors from “Games of Thrones” fame).
In the opening scene, Elton John emerges, dressed in a satanic red “Hell Boy”-like costume with devil horns, wings, and dramatic cape. He marches directly at the camera, –backlit and sinister– as his face, partly disguised by heart-shaped sunglasses, comes into focus. Theatrically plopping down on a chair in a circle of addicts in group therapy, Elton John is there to exorcise his demons in a flashback revealing why he is where he is. The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius. Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.”
In spite of being afflicted with unhealed wounds, Elton finds comfort and motivation from recognition by a prestigious music academy and from a developing friendship with Bernie Taupin (a scene-stealing Jamie Bell in a beautifully touching performance). Taupin is an equally unknown musician, whose lyrics would come to inspire a lifelong collaboration. The friendship between Elton and Bernie –Bernie calls it a brotherhood– is the film’s love story. Since Bernie is straight, there’s no sexual tension but there is such a strong emotional bond, the intimacy is palpable.
For the closeted Elton the handsome, suave agent John Reid, (heart throb Richard Madden, Robb Stark of “Game of Thrones” and star of “Bodyguard”) exudes a seductive eroticism, equal parts dazzle and danger. He triggers Elton’s sexual desire. They fall in love and then comes the darkness, manipulation, and opportunism.
The major problem with the narrative arc is that Rocketman seems to want to be a biopic with songs, and inconsistently, also a musical that sings dialogue and dances away the drama. Rocketman becomes giddy and silly, especially earlier, in choreography and staging reminiscent of 1960’s jukebox ensemble dancing. They distract, at least temporarily, from the demands of the storytelling–a “fourth wall”, namely confronting the viewer with scenes that break the momentum and pacing using lyrics as dialogue. [An analogous “fourth wall” occurs when a character talks to the screen and viewer, dislodging time and place of the story.]
A successful example of using the “fourth wall”: when John’s estranged parents sing “I Want Love”, this interjection of song for dialogue is more effective.
Rocketman ends with Elton in rehab in 1990, singing “I’m Still Standing”, a shout-out to his survival. In the credits, there are facts about his notable generosity on behalf of HIV/AIDS international projects, his family life with his husband and two baby sons. And his sobriety for nearly 30 years.
There’s one crucial difference that, in the final analysis, makes Bohemian Rhapsody a more satisfying film, although not by much. While Rhapsody climaxes with a feel-good stadium-rocking Live Aid concert, maintaining the over-the-top “party animal” style of Freddy Mercury, Rocketman is a more somber psychological study of a shattered psyche, insightfully epitomized in the therapy scene towards the end when the adult Elton John faces his little-boy wounded self in the same Hell Boy costume from the opening scene. Coming full circle with who he now is, in the redemption he finally achieves, is the true end of this film. Rocketmanwould have been more inventive, adhering to the tone of the drama with such a final scene instead of trailing off to a triumphant burlesque song-and-dance routine at the end.
Dozens of lesser films fail to sustain a dramatic arc from assemblages of disparate hits, but Rocketman soars through both darkness and light in most of the second half . The electrifying Taron Egerton gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the gifted, complicated Elton John. He immerses himself in the role and that is the major reason to see Rocketman.
Go see this movie –a universal story about redemption and survival, an underdog wrestling with his wounds from childhood, his sexuality, and a need for love. Taron Egerton’s performance and the music are reasons enough to be entertained.
Note: Currently in theaters.