“Rocketman” is an odd film, but in a world of by-the-numbers music biopics, that’s a good thing.
It seems the most talented musicians and artists all suffer from similar maladies. Either unloved or misunderstood by their parents, their art is fueled by pain. Success places them on a pedestal where it’s even more lonely. Surrounded by yes-men and greedy scavengers, their fears of being unloveable are magnified. When your worth is seemingly defined only by commercial success, the fear of failure grows into an unbearable monster. Sex, drugs, and alcohol are consumed exponentially in a constant effort to dull the pain. Eventually, our idols either succumb to this hellish lifestyle or somehow break through the darkness and peace with who they are. Like virtually every music biopic before it, “Rocketman” takes us on this same journey. While the trip may be familiar, the route it takes is unique.
Taron Egerton portrays the legendary Elton John in what is billed as a “musical fantasy about his fantastical human story.” While that sounds like your typical marketing tag line, it’s actually an incredibly accurate description. I was entirely unprepared for the opening moments when Elton stormed into a surreal addiction meeting dressed as a flamboyant, feathered devil, and broke into song when asked about his childhood. The background fades away, and a much younger version of Elton (Matthew Illesley) takes over the lyrical duties, as a desaturated ’50s suburban neighborhood fills the screen. Over the next two hours, the narrative jumps back and forth between the group meeting and various defining moments in his life.
This flashback narrative is often abused, but given the dreamy nature of the movie, it’s quite effective. It also helps to control the pacing as segues between good times and bad are as simple as a quick cut back to the group. At each interlude, Elton sheds another piece of his Devil costume, as he confronts his demons one by one. Later, when performing one of his first jubilant piano-kicks, time slows down and he remains suspended in mid-air. Sharing in his excitement, the audience begins to levitate for a few glorious moments. These are just two of many clever visual cues that elevate the experience.
By making “Rocketman” a true musical Dexter Fletcher is leveraging the best part of any biopic: the library of popular songs. Even though most of Elton John’s extensive catalog was written by long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) it’s impressive how well they fit his personal memoirs. Taron Egerton‘s performance in each musical number is absolutely stellar and it’s impossible to think of anyone else doing a better job in the role other than Elton John himself.
Even with all the flair and creative touches, “Rocketman” still eventually succumbs to its nature. In the final act, as Elton goes through his darkest times, the film slows to a crawl. When all the excitement and joy is absent on screen, it begins to drain the audience’s energy. The result is a movie that feels 20 minutes too long but requires those 20 minutes to tell the complete story.