The Psycho-Sensual Life of a Rock Star
.Dexter Fletcher’s “Rocketman” is yet another biopic about the psycho-sensual highs and lows of being a rock star. Elton John’s life follows a narrative arc that is familiar: a musically gifted boy from working-class England is inspired by the freedom that is evoked by American rock music. John’s dissatisfaction with his own life pushes him to great success but also makes him susceptible to the temptations of a decadent lifestyle; his drug habit ruins his personal relationships and threatens his career; he ultimately confronts his demons and stages a comeback and his new, healthy attitude is mirrored by renewed professional success. Roll titles telling us where Elton is now.
Whenever the protagonist’s family life or struggles with stardom begin to get too dark, it gives us a colorful, energetic musical sequence and wonderful song-and-dance scenes, built around some of John’s most well-known songs and enhanced by CG effects that express the characters’ submerged feelings, the transition between Elton’s childhood and adulthood and the performative decadence of mid-‘70s glam rock to that of mid-‘70s sex. Their main effect, though, is to give the film the quality of something of a karaoke stage musical: Even as Elton nearly overdoses on prescription meds, we get to enjoy his songs. As a musical, “Rocketman” distracts us from its superficiality.
In between the musical sequences, Elton (Taron Egerton), born Reginald Dwight, is portrayed as the unhappy genius who is loved insufficiently by his selfish mother (Bruce Dallas Howard) and not at all by his stiff-upper-lipped father (Steven Mackintosh). He wants to be somewhere and someone else. He’s gifted at the piano and able to reproduce complex pieces upon hearing them once. This becomes his ticket out of working-class London. Starting as a back-up musician for Motown artists on tour in Britain, John soon breaks out on his own, inventing his new stage name by stealing the first name of one of his bandmates, and taking the last name from John Lennon.
The film makes it clear that the adoption of a stage name is more than just marketing and John insists, later in the film, that his family also call him Elton. The invention of a new persona allows him to escape his humble origins and, “Kill the person you are in order to become the person you want to be.” The irony of John’s public image—his mild manner and small stature is offset by his flamboyant, glittering stage performances in which the adult Elton must eventually learn to reconcile himself with his inner child. It’s a reconciliation that will be presented in the most literal of images toward the end of the film.
At DJM, Elton is paired with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and the two form an instant bond. Together, they write many popular songs, some seemingly inspired by their friendship. There’s an ambiguous sexual tension between them, and the film implies that the duo’s “Your Song” may have been an outgrowth of this tension—or, at the very least, that the lonely Elton mistook it as such. Elton’s ultimately platonic friendship with Bernie is the emotional core of the film and it is seen as the most stable relationship of Elton’s life. (The film ends in the ‘80s, just before the singer would meet his eventual husband, David Furnish.)
Fletcher’s film is open about Elton’s love life—including sex. Elton had an intense and predictably doomed romance with music manager John Reid (Richard Madden), but he is driven to booze and drugs because of loneliness and discomfort with himself that goes beyond his sexuality. This simply means that Elton John doesn’t fit into to the stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive gay man.
Egerton gives us a performance as the alternatingly sullen and exuberant star, one that fits in perfectly with his loud and campy aesthetic. “Rocketman” is essentially a “featuring the songs of” Broadway musical in the guise of a biopic. The human drama is simply filler designed to propel viewers from one hit to the next. It does not “Rocketman” doesn’t deviate from the fundamentals of the pop-music biopic.
“Rocketman” attributes John’s rise to fame to his amazing piano skills and the usual self-help aphorisms. (the singer is advised to “kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be”; ponder that for a moment). His demons stem from various deficits of love in his life. His manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), sleeps with him but sees him more as a cash cow than an equal romantic partner. (The movie isn’t as coy about gay sex as “Bohemian Rhapsody” was, but there’s nothing terribly boundary-pushing for a Hollywood film, either.) His longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), loves him as a brother. His father, given an opportunity to make up with his estranged-but-now-famous son, merely asks for an autograph for a co-worker.
But picking at the sillier details of a production that aspires to camp excess is beside the point. Would “Rocketman” be a better movie if it were less extravagant, or if it dwelled less on the question of whether Elton John could himself feel the love tonight? “Rocketman” is high as a kite, flying well above any potential criticism from the Croisette.
“Rocketman” has the appearance of a typical musician bio-pic, this time focusing on the highs and lows of Elton John as he grows from a musical prodigy to a rock star. It’s hard to doubt the routine of it all, with “Bohemian Rhapsody” smashing box office records and Motley Crue’s “The Dirt” capturing viewers on Netflix. “Rocketman” isn’t about to deny the popularity of tales involving musicians caught in psychological strangleholds, but this is Elton. Hercules. John. He’s one of the most flamboyant and popular entertainers around, but his life story isn’t complete, with screenwriter Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher transforming certain aspects of John’s experience into a jukebox musical that teases delightful fantasy, but mostly fixates on depression. The feature works to pry John open, inspecting his demons and dreams, but the movie only finds intermittent clarity. The rest is frustrating repetition, though star Taron Egerton makes it his personal mission to feel everything offered here in full.
As a young child in England, Reginald (Taron Egerton) struggled with his family life, often dismissed by his mother, Shelia (Bryce Dallas Howard), and abandoned by his father, Stanley (Steven Mackintosh). Finding a talent for the piano, Reginald works through a posh musical education, but exposure to Elvis fuels his desire to be a rock star. Developing his gifts, Reginald eventually becomes Elton John, soon paired with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), a lyricist who matches the pianist perfectly, commencing a partnership that soon catches fire with the public, gifting Elton numerous hit songs, along with fame and fortune. However, all is not well inside his head, as Elton battles the doubts that consume him, while predatory men, such as his manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), contribute to his lack of self-worth. Soon drowning in drink and smothered by drugs, Elton fights to find his true self while addicted to being everything for everyone.
There’s no promise of truth offered at the beginning of “Rocketman.” It’s intended to be something bigger than life, much like its subject, using the basics of John’s history to fuel a musical mood for the endeavor, which has the characters often breaking out into song, using the artist’s biggest hits as a means to express feelings within. This is not a novel approach, and there’s a distinct Broadway vibe to the feature, which serves up unreality and choreography to energize the viewing experience, turning small moments in Elton’s screen odyssey into larger efforts of singing and dancing. There’s undeniable pop to the movie, which has a few choice moments of explosion, and it soon becomes clear the production isn’t going to stick with the advancing years, using whatever John tune is necessary to sell scenes. And the actual trajectory of the artist’s career is nothing more than a blur, with “Rocketman” failing to acknowledge albums or even decades, making a clear view of his achievements impossible.
There are really two pictures contained here: Egerton’s lived-in universe of and Fletcher’s pedestrian take on musical theater. The one with passion is most memorable. The one with the hits rises above the run time.