“Rocketman” is the story that Elton John wants us to know.
The film, directed by Dexter Fletcher, traces soft-rock superstar Elton John’s (Taron Egerton) rise to fame, beginning in his early childhood and ending during his rehab stint in the 1990s. You can essentially read John’s Wikipedia page while simultaneously playing his greatest hits to get a sense of what the film entails.
Do not go into this biopic expecting a gritty rock ‘n’ roll climb to fame. “Rocketman,” released May 31, is a neat and tidy diamond-encrusted Hollywood package delivered conveniently in time for the second leg of John’s ongoing farewell tour. At times it is a little silly, which may usually warrant an eye roll, but in this case it feels like a window into John’s personality. The playful nature and overall positivity show John’s peaceful perspective towards the chaotic moments of his life. His difficulties with addiction and tense relationship with his parents breathes life into the overall story.
Although the film boasts an R-rating, it is pretty mellow. Drug use is very much present, though it is never particularly graphic or disturbing. Most of the heavy subject matter (sex, addiction, alcohol abuse) is handled in such a way that neither alienates the audience nor hinders the overall light tone of the film.
What is most surprising about this picture is that it actually was more of a musical than a by-the-book documentary of his life. At first, the musical numbers feels slightly absurd, but these moments are also where a lot of creative liberty blossomed, producing a refreshing take on event-inspired storytelling. These efforts create a distinct energy and help separate it from other biopics.
As far as the performances go, Egerton did a great job becoming John both visually and musically. However, it lacked the effortless power John’s live performances exhibit. When listening to John, there is an organic ease with his vocals. Egerton did well enough in mimcing this, but certain pronunciations and tambers felt contrived. And the instrumental performance at times did not mirror the intricacies that make one go gaga for certain numbers, like the keyboard in “Bennie and the Jets” and la-la-la’s in “Crocodile Rock.” The songs had to be manipulated to fill time constraints, and certain musical elements were changed in service of the scene. However, this is always an issue with a reproduction — it never will truly capture the essence of the real thing.
One of the most impressive features of this film is the costuming and close visual attention to the era. Costume designer Julian Day did a spectacular job at recreating almost all of John’s iconic looks while nailing the fashion tropes of the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was pure fun to be reminded of each one of John’s many fantastic outfits, such as his gem-covered Dodgers uniform from his two day sold-out residency at Dodger Stadium and his angel look from an at-home photoshoot in 1974. From the gigantic glasses and the bedazzled platform heels to the kaleidoscopic jackets, Egerton flaunted all of John’s most iconic looks with comfortable panache.
After the film addresses John’s humble beginnings, it dips into what is true heart of the film — John’s struggle with being accepted for his sexuality. John came out publicly as bisexual in 1976 and openly gay in 1992. “Rocketman” does a great job at portraying the personal difficulties of coming out and feeling accepted, especially by your loved ones. Throughout the late 20th century, being openly gay was still widely taboo. Although John never hid his flamboyant fashion sense and taste for theatrics, for a long time he couldn’t reveal his inner self to his family and his fans. The film shows that his greatest difficulty was coming out to his mother and father. Even after this, much time passed until John could comfortably be himself in front of the whole world.
But the film fails to highlight how important John is within the LGBTQ+ community and his broad impact and greater iconography for the movement. Younger audiences may miss how difficult it was to identify one’s self as LGBTQ+ at the time, because now we watch a movie like “Rocketman” and just enjoy John for his music and himself. If a film like this was released in the ’80s, it would have been banned faster than the beat of “Crocodile Rock.” Because of people like Elton John, we all can celebrate Pride month and continue to open ourselves as a society by practicing love.
The film does a beautiful job at capturing the chemistry shared by the songwriting duo, John and Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). There was a loving attention cast over the growth of their friendship that made some of the best moments of the film. Taupin is the lyricist behind much of John’s music and it was fascinating to explore their connection as arguably the most prominent singer/songwriter team in modern music history. The two are true creative equals and Taupin is portrayed as a role model of what it means to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. One of the most heartwarming moments of the film was held between them during the penning of, arguably, their most iconic ballad, “Your Song.”
“Rocketman” does not heavily address the twisted grips of addiction, nor does it delve into the production of his many hits. Realism is not the principle aim. At times, the film spun some corny cliches and was painfully obvious with its symbolism and thematic substance. On the other hand, it’s a fun film for the start of the summer. For fans of John, casual listeners and musical seekers, this is a rewarding watch. You’ll be reminded of his innumerable hits, his brilliant fashion sense and the raw power of his music. Your toe will tap to at least one song, especially when hearing it blast from theater speakers.
John was present for the making of the film and is excited for his story to be on the big screen. It’s wholesome in that regard, and his yearning to put out a movie drenched in positivity is a testament to his art. The movie is a reminder that the performer of hits like “Rocket Man” and “I’m Still Standing” will always help us reckon with the darkness with a smile and a tune.