Talking about Bohemian Rhapsody when discussing Rocketman, unfortunately, feels inevitable. Both are music biopics, both showcase extraordinary, proudly flamboyant gay icons from the 70s, and both launching relatively fresh-faced talent in their leading roles. I want to get it out of the way here, Rocketman easily puts Bohemian to shame, though that’s not a very high bar to pass. It’s more productive to focus on what Rocketman strives to be, what it fails to achieve, and what leaves to be desired as its own film. However, the music biopic genre is rigid and formulaic in general; so it would be helpful to use Bohemian, the most highly praised cookie cutter music biopic of them all, as a reference for the limitations of the genre.
Rocketman is the story of the legendary Elton John; singer, songwriter, gay, fashion icon with a troubled childhood. Directed by Dexter Fletcher and starring Taron Egerton as our titular Rocketman, this movie is based on a ‘true fantasy’ of music stardom. What sets this film apart from all the other music biopics on the shelf is the ‘true fantasy’ angle, which consistently is the best part of the film’s two-hour runtime. Breaking the formula are surrealist musical sequences and setpieces, which are loud and bright and expressive just as Elton John himself. The concept of itself seems brilliant on paper: let’s make a film that is just as over-the-top as the man it’s based on. Unfortunately, while the movie makes a valiant effort to revitalize some life into the music biopic, there are far too many genre constraints holding Rocketman from being a true home-run.
Here’s the number one problem with the music biopic: the concept in itself is inherently uncinematic. Each one is essentially an origin story for the historically significant musical artist, usually following the same mold from their youth to their rise to fame and their eventual downfall. It’s the same themes, the same struggles with addiction, the same exact emotional beats and most noticeably, a major emphasis on giving us factoids about the artists’ careers and inspirations. For most directors, there’s no better way than to tell these kinds of stories without touring montages. How other way can we show rising success and fame than monotonous party sequences, chart numbers, and location cards? Unfortunately, Rocketman still hasn’t cracked the code for this either. The movie suffers from, despite being quite entertaining, giving us Wikipedia page information that doesn’t really matter as opposed to what the story is about at its core. Above all, this is a story of Elton John trying to learn to love himself. A story about a man trying to make his childhood self proud.
And luckily, by the second half and especially in the final moments of Rocketman, the film finds itself just as Elton does in its own story. There’s an interesting parallel between the man himself and the film’s very own form. Throughout the runtime, there is definitely a directorial struggle to balance being a biopic with being a musical, and when those whimsical, over-the-top images that get us into the mind of Elton John; the images Rocketman will be remembered by, are swept away, it’s simply jarring to go back to watching a simple biopic. If Fletcher had embraced the camp and wackiness of the musical journey through Elton’s memories, I think we would have a film that would not just be more interesting from a cinematic angle, but also would represent Elton John as an artist better. Here is an attempt to oil up and finetune the biopic formula but not to revolutionize it into something new, and clearly it’s working more on others than me.
That’s not to say Rocketman is an insubstantial film. In the end, I am supportive of its endeavors to capture the spirit of Elton John because it’s clear from start to finish that the people behind the film have a love for the man and his extraordinary life. His descent into self-destructiveness is not painted with judgemental colors. His sexuality is not danced around. His childhood trauma, his dreams, his aspirations to be more than what his parents think he is are all well covered and it leads into a finale that is intimate and small but feels triumphant and larger-than-life. I have a desire for something even bolder and experimental, but Rocketman delivered in allowing us a glimpse of what music biopics could be, even if the concept wasn’t as realized as I would have hoped. It did, however, remind me how much I love Elton John. So, perhaps this Rocketman’s mission was accomplished.