Popstar Elton John wasn’t always one of the world’s best-selling musical artists. Before he rocketed to fame and fortune, he was Reginald Dwight. John’s breakthrough years and wild career are told in musical fantasy whirlwind ‘Rocketman’.
It might be unfair, but comparisons between Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody are inevitable after the latter stole the hearts of Queen fans and casual listeners alike mere months ago. Both film protagonists are flamboyant gay icons who dominated the pop charts in the 70s and 80s. Both protagonists struggled with addiction and depression. Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher was initially attached to Bohemian Rhapsody, and indeed came back to finish the film in its director’s absence. But in ambition, the two projects are very different.
Rocketman departs slightly from the simple ‘biggest hits’ jukebox formula. Instead, Fletcher opts for surrealist elements, with characters performing John’s songs in spontaneous, non-sequitur sequences. These moments are superbly choregraphed and end up being the film’s most engaging. Lighting, colour, music, and movement all come together in wonderful set pieces that tell us more about John’s fantastical persona than any amount of dialogue ever could. They are also excellent montage tools, pivotal in a biopic trying to cram so much information into a 120-minute run-time. But despite the well-shot these sequences, their oft-incongruity with the onscreen action disrupted the narrative flow. Indeed, all the lyrics to John’s songs are written by long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin, which made attempts to tie song’s meaning to Elton’s life seem like the efforts of a casual fan trying too hard.
Taron Egerton, on the other hand, tries the right amount of hard in nailing the pop icon’s mannerisms and singing. He exudes confidence, even in the highest heels, confirming his rise as one of Hollywood’s go-to young stars. The same cannot be said of Jamie Bell, who trips through the film with a weird, ever-changing accent as the understated Bernie. He’s completely lost next to Egerton’s John – metaphorically true, but a waste of onscreen talent. Other supporting actors include Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s unreadable mother – but this is Egerton’s film, no doubt about it.
Veteran screenwriter Lee Hall penned the script – with work on great films like War Horse, my expectations were high. However, one of the film’s greatest failings was its rushed narrative pacing. Some of the most important beats in John’s life, such as his first coming-out, were rushed past with barely a backwards glance. This was echoed later in his fallout with lover and smirkingly villainous manager John Reid (Richard Madden). These episodes usually define a non-musical biopic – here they were an afterthought to rush us onto the next song, meaning we never really gained a deeper understanding behind major moments in John’s career. The ending, in which John faces his inner demons, is also brutally corny – we’d have been better off with another song.
Rocketman is a good tribute to the most dramatically watchable moments of John’s career. But the rushed narrative gives us the impression that these are the only bits that really mattered. We never get beyond John’s shiny costumes to see more about the man within.
Rocketman is bold and ambitious but lacked the spark that made the more paint-by-numbers Bohemian Rhapsody excel. 6.5/10.