Reginald “Reggie” Dwight, better known as Elton John, has checked into rehab. He admits to his various vices, being addicted to cocaine, prescription drugs, sex, and excessive shopping. To get a clear understanding of what brought him to where he is now, he reflects on his life. Before he became Elton John, Reggie was an ordinary child living in the United Kingdom. One day, he showed a knack for playing the piano. Despite his father wishing his son to pursue more practical career paths, Reggie is eventually allowed to study at the Royal Academy of Music. The instructors couldn’t possibly have known they were about to witness the birth of a rock legend.
In 2017, Bryan Signer found himself directing the biographical feature Bohemian Rhapsody, which told the story of Queen’s frontman, Freddie Mercury. Nearing the end of the year, however, Mr. Singer was fired from the project with around two weeks of scheduled shooting remaining. The reasons given for this sudden departure were unclear at the time. Many of the crew members were allegedly tired of Mr. Singer’s unprofessional behavior, as he would arrive late and clash with lead actor Rami Malek. Mr. Singer’s problems only compounded a man named Cesar Sanchez-Guzman filed a lawsuit in Washington state against Mr. Singer, accusing the director having raped him at age seventeen in 2003. Dexter Fletcher was called in to salvage the project, completing what he considered to be the final third of the project.
Due to a combination of Mr. Fletcher being involved with both projects and Rocketman only having been released a year after Bohemian Rhapsody, comparisons between the two films were unavoidable. Mr. Fletcher did the best he could in light of the circumstances, but Bohemian Rhapsody was still a by-the-numbers biographical film – one that ultimately didn’t do its iconic subject justice. The film had a highly compressed narrative, omitted important details, and altered several facts in order for its narrative to remain intact. More importantly, it was, at the end of the day, only a film that featured Queen music. Though that certainly speaks well for the film’s taste in music, it meant the narrative came to halt during the performances.
The reason I choose to mention this is because within seconds of the film beginning in earnest, I knew that Rocketman was the superior effort. In true Elton John fashion, lead actor Taron Egerton swaggers into the frame clad in a winged devil costume. It is in this costume that Elton enters rehab and admits to his shortcomings. When he reminiscences about his childhood, the scene has a natural transition wherein his younger self and his friends sing “The Bitch is Back”. Whereas in Bohemian Rhapsody, a majority of the music was diegetic, Rocketman is a full-on jukebox musical. Considering the wild life Elton John lived throughout the 1970s, an equally wild presentation is the only way to do his story justice.
To enforce this, the film’s tagline even states that it is “based on a true fantasy”. Many contemporary biographical features such as Green Book, BlacKkKlansman, and The Favourite were the subject of scrutiny due to taking controversial creative liberties with their subject matter. Although it is completely impossible to recreate a historical event exactly as it happened, there has to be some kind of middle ground that studios often failed to tread. The crew behind Green Book didn’t bother consulting the subject’s surviving family members, the undercover operation in BlacKkKlansman ended with zero arrests, and there is substantial evidence the love triangle featured in The Favourite was a piece of fiction borne from a slanderous poem penned by Sarah Churchill. Although the intentions were mostly good, these directors effectively reshaped reality to fit their purposes, thus selling falsehoods or rumors as the truth in the minds of many audience members.
On the back of these film’s successive releases, it was therefore highly refreshing seeing Mr. Fletcher take a step back and craft a narrative that freely admits to being a work of fiction. The narrative evokes a sense of magic realism, depicting real-life events in a fantastical fashion. In what is perhaps the most famous scene in the film, as Elton performs one of his most famous songs, “Crocodile Rock”, he leaps into the air while on the piano. During this iconic moment, the audience is lifted by their feet with him. For that brief moment, the sense of elation is shared by everyone in the room. This directorial style is also evident in the film’s framing device. Nearing the end of the film, figures from Elton’s past, including his younger self, speak with him. It is through these developments that Rocketman has what many biographical features lack: a sense of fair play. It also helps that the real Elton John, who produced the film, loved Taron Egerton’s performance and actively encouraged the actor to put his own spin the depiction.
What is especially ironic about Rocketman is that in spite of its whimsical nature, it is quite a bit grittier than the average contemporary effort. While Bohemian Rhapsody was lambasted for presenting a sanitized version of Freddie Mercury’s life, Rocketman has no such qualms, electing to present its own subject warts and all. Once he gains fame and fortune, Elton becomes increasingly belligerent, and his hair-trigger temper drives away his friend and songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, along with everyone close to him. Behind the flashy showmanship and extraordinary songwriting talent is a broken man. Even the monumental success he enjoys doesn’t change this.
It doesn’t help that his parents, while not horribly abusive, were extremely cold. Even when he finds success, his father still finds ways to belittle Elton, admitting he doesn’t enjoy his music. His mother isn’t depicted as a terribly caring individual either, also being unappreciative of her son’s obvious talents. She does take Elton’s revelation that he is gay fairly well given the prevailing attitudes at the time – when homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. Nonetheless, she discourages Elton from revealing this to the public, knowing full well what would happen if he did.
Indeed, Mr. Fletcher’s film doesn’t shy away from Elton John’s sexuality. As he grew up, he had to come to terms with his attraction to men and growing up in a time in which such relations were taboo. During a particularly vulnerable moment, he attempts to kiss Bernie, only for the latter to rebuke him. His love for Elton is real, but it’s platonic. After a successful performance, he is approached by music manager John Reid, who is attracted to Elton. The two of them copulate shortly thereafter in what was stated to have been the very first Hollywood production to feature an onscreen gay male sex scene. The romance quickly takes a destructive turn, for Reid introduces Elton to various drugs and the man proceeds to embezzle the rock star’s money all while cheating on him. This is quite the departure from Reid’s depiction in Bohemian Rhapsody in which he was completely on the level managing Queen.
As you may have noticed by now, the film doesn’t bother sanitizing the seedier aspects of the typical rock lifestyle of the 1970s and 1980s. Elton is seen using enough cocaine to cause a nosebleed and one memorable scene has him washing down an entire canister of pills with alcohol before attempting to commit suicide in front of everybody in his pool. Although some argue this liberal drug usage led to artists being highly creative, Rocketman makes a solid case that the lifestyle nearly killed Elton. Considering many of his peers did indeed die long before their time as a result of substance abuse and a general disregard for their own wellbeing, that he wasn’t among the casualties can only be attributed to pure, dumb luck.
It is due to these various touches that one could consider Rocketman a dark twin to Bohemian Rhapsody. Despite this, what I find to be the most admirable aspect of Mr. Fletcher’s film is how he goes about depicting Elton coming to grips with his misdeeds and growing as a person. At the beginning of the rehab sessions, he is dressed in a devil’s costume, but as the story continues, he removes the pieces one by one until he wears normal clothing – his true self laid bare. When he is accepting of his negative emotions, he is able to truly move on from what he was. The person who emerged from these sessions can only be described as a hybrid of Reginald Dwight and Elton John. This change is capped off when he hugs his child self.
After spending a majority of his career self-destructing, he is eventually able to ween himself off the drugs and spend the next three decades sober and repair his shattered relationships. Even better, in the years since his heyday, same-sex marriage was legalized. This allowed him to marry the love of his life and start a family. Despite all of this, his penchant for excessive shopping remains as strong as ever.
The jukebox musical is a genre I had seen attempted fairly often, yet rarely did I feel was it done well. It does stand to reason that the genre is a fairly difficult one to tackle. Attempting to incorporate songs that already exist and making a comprehensive narrative out of them is quite a difficult task. Anyone attempting to craft a jukebox musical needs to study Rocketman extensively because it absolutely hits all of the right notes. I feel the primary reason is because the crew behind this film was clearly interested in writing a story first and reference song lyrics second. Indeed, a lot of the dialogue references his songs and albums, but it’s not distracting at all. One is even used at a key dramatic moment and in context, you’re not likely to notice it, instead diverting your attention to the shocking development.
More than anything, what I enjoy about Rocketman is that it’s a true labor of love. This was made by a group of people who have a lot of respect for its subject. They acknowledged his larger-than-life persona and weaved a narrative as fantastical as his showmanship. At the same time, their effort doesn’t fall into the trap of romanticizing Elton John to unrealistic degrees. Because you get a sense the narrative doesn’t pull any punches in how it chooses to depict him, Rocketman is, in a way, the rock-and-roll equivalent of Raging Bull. In an era that saw an oversaturation of biographical features, Rocketman stands above a majority of its contemporaries. Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of classic rock, this film is absolutely worth watching.
Final Score: 7/10