How many times can audiences tolerate another rock biopic? They are cut from as formulaic a cloth as popular cinema can provide: the humble beginnings, the prodigy talent, the rise to fame, and the crash spurred on by drugs and alcohol. Two exemplars of the genre, Taylor Hackford’s Ray (2004) and James Mangold’s Walk the Line (2005), are by-and-large the same movie; it just depends whether viewers want country music or soul with their rags-to-riches-to-redemption story. Lesser examples like Leisl Tommy’s Respect (2021) show off how easily the formula can fall flat if it isn’t injected with some sense of individuality or difference. The road to acclaimed biographical feature from rote movie-of-the-week is a tricky one, and like driving a rental hatchback through a small Italian town, all signs will point you in an undesired direction.
Dexter Fletcher’s 2019 feature Rocketman has a red-hot go at breaking the mediocrity barrier, presenting the life and career of pop star Elton John through a combination of dramatic vignettes and over-the-top magical realist musical numbers. As the genre goes – childhood, talent, success, drugs, recovery – so too goes Rocketman.
There is little avoiding that Rocketman is also a blatant hagiography – John himself is an executive producer – but in its defence it never tries to indicate that it’s not. The entire narrative is framed in flashback and narrated by its protagonist. It makes as clear a point as it can that it is at least presented as autobiographical. There’s an emotional honesty to that, I think: Rocketman is simply designed to entertain with an uplifting rock star story and some excellent tunes. By following that direction it ably avoids the sort of queasy anodyne dishonesty that scuppered previous rock biopics like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody (a film that, when Singer abruptly abandoned the set, Dexter Fletcher took over to save the furniture).
The freewheeling jumps from dramatic scene to musical routine will strike many film viewers as reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) and older and more widely experienced viewers of television icon Dennis Potter. Critically it lacks either Luhrmann’s self-awareness or Potter’s cynicism. What it has got is pace, focus, and some of the catchiest songs in show business.
There’s a musical phenomenon known as the ‘jukebox musical’, where a bundle of pre-existing songs are packaged together with a story and some dialogue to create a new commercially-savvy product. They have typically been a stage phenomenon – although 1995’s Singin’ in the Rain is one – and are perfectly suited for a pop or rock musician looking for further profit from their back catalogue. By taking this route – and by readily adopting abstract moments of fantasy for the songs – Rocketman effectively counters any major problems with its genre, story, and perspective. The result is not particularly insightful, nor is it progressive (although it may well contain the first-ever homosexual sex scene in a major studio production), but it is a sparkling piece of light entertainment. I suspect this is in part due to presence of screenwriter Lee Hall, whose own work in adapting cinema to the stage includes Billy Elliot, Network, and Shakespeare in Love.
Taron Egerton capably performs a near-impossible role as Elton John, and while he is very robustly supported by some uncanny costumes, hair, and makeup he does manage to give at least a sense of reality to the real-life icon. Particularly strong in support are Kit Connor as the young Reggie Dwight, Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mother Sheila, and Richard Madden as his toxically sexy manager John Reid.
If it’s searing realist drama that you are seeking, or some thoughtful insight into Elton John’s life, Rocketman will fail you. If, however, it is an entertaining movie musical that you are after, then it capably delivers.