The music biopic is dead, a rotten bloating corpse that stinks up the joint. Yes, the Queen movie made towards a billion dollars, but we all know that success is no measure of quality. The very form itself is rancid, unsalvageable. We all know this, and yet Rocketman has the audacity to be released into theaters, giving us an exhilarating jukebox musical-style take on the genre, and in doing so presenting a beautiful, raw and honest portrayal of pain and healing… even if it is largely full of shit.
This is the fascinating dichotomy at the heart of Rocketman, one that mirrors a myriad of dichotomies in subject Elton John’s life. The movie is factually inaccurate, and yet it is undeniably true. John himself was surrounded by people and love, and yet was alone and unloved. He was shy and reserved, and yet he took to the stage in increasingly silly outfits. He sang someone else’s lyrics and yet his songs were incredibly personal and honest.
We mustn’t let facts get in the way of truth, and Rocketman goes out of its way to avoid just such a thing. Presented in a whirlwind, occasionally montage-ish style, the movie fast-forwards through John’s life in vignettes rather than full scenes. Writer Lee Hall (who has a credit on the massively underappreciated War Horse) finds the nugget of meaning and truth in any given scene, delivers it to us and then moves forward. Director Dexter Fletcher – the man who steered the broken Bohemian Rhapsody into theaters – brings it all to life in vivid color and fantastical dance numbers. And Giles Martin, who gave his dad’s recordings of the Beatles new life with Love, has reimagined Elton John’s songbook into something that’s just a few notches over towards showtunes, while allowing the songs to speak to moments and events in revealing and revelatory ways.
Then there are the actors, walking a perfectly razor thin line between broadness and reality, never quite tipping too far in any one direction. In the space of one scene they may have to endure an emotional devastation, walk into a fantasy fugue and then break into song, and they have to navigate all of these shifts without missing a beat – either literally or figuratively.
Let me tell you a secret: I’m not even a big Elton John guy. He’s fine! I like many of his songs, but he’s the epitome of a “Greatest Hits” artist for me – I don’t know any of his album cuts, just the singles. So the fact that I have fallen head-over-heels in love with Rocketman doesn’t stem from some kind of deeply embedded John standom. What’s more, I find myself deeply irritated by most recovery stories these days, and yet I find the recovery that is at the heart of Rocketman to be absolutely moving, honest and truly representative of what recovery is – while being absolute bollocks (as the Brits might say) in its depiction of recovery itself.
It’s true, but the facts are wrong.
As a not big Elton John guy I was stunned by how deeply I identified with him. Growing up Reggie Dwight, John was a very different little boy who grew up with a single mother who did not know how to love him properly and a distant, cold father. This sets the course for his life, always looking for love but either being surrounded by people who cannot give it to him or, more tragically, being unable to receive it when it is given.
That defines his relationship with Bernie Taupin, his lyricist and best friend. Bernie loves Elton, deeply and truly, but Elton can’t quite see it – when Bernie pursues his own life, Elton sees it as a betrayal, and when Bernie shows concern Elton sees it as an intrusion.
What Rocketman understands, and what makes it a great recovery movie, is that this emotional problem is the source of the addictions that would almost kill Elton John. Yes, there’s a chemical dependency that comes with abuse of substances, but for many addicts – and especially Elton John, who identifies at the beginning of the movie as an alcoholic, a cocaine addict, a sex addict, a shopaholic and a bulimic – the substance/activity is pursued obsessively in an attempt to fill the hole left by being unable to feel the experience of being loved.
For a rock star this problem is amplified; his career is a desperate attempt to be loved, but the love he gets from the audience never quite reaches him. And how can it? As so many artists discover, the adulation of the crowd makes a poor substitute for the true love of close friends.
This sounds more cerebral than it is; Rocketman is brilliant at creating huge emotions while still getting across their complexities. In fact, the sequence set to the title track displays this brilliance all on it is own, a fractal embodiment of what makes this film so good.
The movie could have been called many things – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a good title, I’m Still Standing another – but Rocketman (losing the space in the song title – perhaps as a reflection of how reality is being altered, or maybe as a way of showing the duality of John being brought into oneness) ends up being the perfect title, and the sequence the perfect sequence.
Rocket Man the song first appears early in the movie; young Reggie has discovered his preternatural talent for music and is laying in the dark in bed obsessing over it. His mother, unsupportive in the extreme, comes in and does one of those “Go to bed!” moments where parents unknowingly quash their child’s exploration of passion, but as in all stories like this young Reggie doesn’t go to sleep. He continues reading sheet music by flashlight, and as he reads it he imagines himself first conducting a grand choir, illuminated by the dancing beam of his light, and then he imagines himself playing a little piano, like the kind Schroeder plays in Peanuts.
The song he is playing is Rocket Man; he’s hammering out the vocal melody. The track doesn’t appear again until late in the movie, when Reggie is Elton and he has become fabulously wealthy and famous. All the money, all the adulation, has turned to ash in his mouth, and he’s alone in his huge mansion while a party rages outside.
Ready to end it all, Elton downs a bunch of pills, drinks a bunch of booze and heads downstairs. He walks out onto the diving board of his pool, announces he is about to kill himself, and tumbles in.
As he floats through the water, John sees Reggie at the bottom of the pool, globular helmet on his head, Schroeder piano before him. The kid begins singing the lyrics to Rocket Man, a song that is very particularly not about an astronaut. It’s about the loneliness of a space worker, about being a person alone on a strange world, without the hope of love or family. It’s about the distance between what people think the job is and what it really is (“I’m not the man they think I am at all”).
John sinks lower into the pool and then people begin jumping in. At first it’s not clear what’s happening – as we’re seeing this through John’s perspective it at first looks like they’re having fun. The swimmers hang in the water, doing aerialist moves in an environment that is like zero gravity. It seems like maybe they don’t even see Elton, like there’s about to be a dance number that breaks out… and then suddenly they swim to him, bringing him to the surface.
The song continues. Now it’s Elton singing as he is being strapped to a gurney and taken to an ambulance. Faces crowd around him, but he’s never in the same shot with anyone else. He remains alone. As the EMTs try to put an oxygen mask on his face Elton bats it away, singing about how he doesn’t understand the science, this is just his job five days a week.
The lyrics here are key. The weight of the loneliness is matched by the pointlessness of the job; the song’s Rocket Man takes no particular pride in what he does, despite what he does being fundamentally amazing. He lives on Mars! From our perspective it’s incredible, but from his it’s a drag.
And the song continues. John gets to the hospital and he is pulled out of the ambulance by a cadre of doctors. They lift him out of the gurney and, for a brief moment as they begin a ballet around him, it looks as if they will help him or save him. But the visual language is a fake-out again, and the lifting is revealed to be not a rescue but a costume change. They’re taking him right from the ambulance and getting him geared up to go onstage.
John, still singing, is now dressed up in a bedazzled baseball uniform as he steps out into Dodger Stadium, comically swinging a bat and jumping up on his piano. The crowd goes wild and he stands before them and his feet turn into rocket boosters and he takes off into the sky… where he collides with an airplane and turns into a giant blue firework. The scene transitions to him on that plane, smoke wafting off him, in a drug daze.
This sequence is ridiculous and amazing. The way it brings together the threads of his life and connects them through this song is astonishing, but the way that it keeps building and then reversing the mini-story it’s telling is breathtaking. But more than that, what is great about this sequence is the way that it contains almost the totality of the movie that has come before within itself; you could watch the Rocket Man sequence (with perhaps some of the lead-up scenes) and get the gist of all the thematics, from Elton being unable to understand people who are helping him to the people he thinks who are helping him actually exploiting him.
Through it all is Taron Egerton, whose performance in this film is monumental. Egerton captures the warring sides of Elton John in every scene, but more than that he adds a humanity and truth to what could otherwise be stock moments in a rise-and-fall narrative. The guy in his bathrobe falling into the pool is about the schlockiest “Oh no! My fame is killing me!” image you could have, but there’s something about the way Egerton executes it – the very physicality of how he falls, the way he stumbles through the party, even the way he takes the pills – that transcends the cliched obviousness of the imagery.
Also he can sing. The soundtrack to Rocketman is interesting; all of the songs have been rearranged to fit into the scenes, and most have been shortened. But because of the fact that this is a musical – characters burst into song, they’re not just performing songs – the presentation of these tracks have to carry different emotional and narrative weight than a straight pop rendition. The actors have to act in song, and Egerton is absolutely fantastic at this.
His first song is Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, playing a young Elton gigging in a rowdy pub world, and he explodes into the movie with a burst of ecstatic energy. This isn’t Egerton’s first scene, though – he opens the movie in full sparkly devil drag, blowing through doors backlit by an otherworldly white light and then striding through an institutional hallway. He’s coming into a recovery meeting, and here Egerton gives us a hint of what he’s going to be doing the rest of the movie, playing both the bravado and the pain of Elton John not in alternating moments but at the very exact same time.
Egerton anchors the movie, bringing reality to a nearly cartoon version of Elton John. What’s more he manages to actually look… weird while doing it; Egerton is a classically handsome guy and Elton John is not, and yet Egerton manages to bridge that gap largely through performance (and a bunch of wigs. For once a wig being bad works in favor of the characterization in a biopic). Egerton’s physicality goes a long way; watch his differing levels of comfort in his increasingly garish outfits and you can chronicle when Elton John is being himself and when he’s being a caricature in order to survive another day.
He’s surrounded by some terrific co-stars, including Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin (I love how the film explores their love and how they relate to one another), Bryce Dallas Howard as his cold, emotionally abusive mother (the degree to which I was attracted to her in this role shows me how much more personal work I yet have before me) and Richard Madden as villainous music manager John Reid. Reid also popped up in Bohemian Rhapsody, but Madden really imbues this guy with a malevolent sexuality that is hypnotizing. He uses his powerful jawline for evil in this film, and you understand why little Reggie Dwight would fall madly in love with this sociopath in the fitted suits with the tousled hair.
By the time Rocketman gets to the sobriety part of Elton John’s life it has truly earned its earnestness. There are bromides delivered, and cliches offered, but they’re all true ones. And Rocketman does something I’m not sure I’ve seen in a mass-market recovery story – it features a sequence where Elton John asks forgiveness from even the people who hurt him. It’s a key part of recovery, understanding our own part in our suffering, but it’s hard to dramatize. It too often comes across as self-flagellation, but Rocketman understands that it’s a letting go. There’s freedom, and when Elton says to the ghost of his mother, “This is the part where we have to forgive each other,” it’s powerful and meaningful.
The dichotomy between facts and truth that the film has been playing with comes to a head here. We can be wrong about people’s actions – we can read malice into thoughtlessness, we can read cruelty into awkwardness – but that doesn’t impact the truth of the way they make us feel. Forgiveness and understanding our part in the process allows us to reconcile the facts of the matter – Elton’s mother was doing the best she could with what she had – with the truth of it – her coldness and manipulation badly scarred him for life. By letting go of it all, by forgiving her and asking her forgiveness from her, he can become free of the things that tie him to his addictions.
Rocketman truly is a miracle, exploring all of this rocky emotional territory with a rock n’ roll attitude that is fun as hell. There’s a moment in the movie, right before he hits bottom, where Elton tells his mother that he’s fucked everything that moves and loved it, and that he’s taken every drug and enjoyed it. This is an aspect I loved about the movie – yes the bad times can be fun times, and pleasure is not a problem. It’s how we relate to the pleasure, how we relate to the fun times, that becomes a problem. So Rocketman never has to denounce Elton’s old life the way some sobriety stories do – the film just has him come to an understanding that he’s done with that stuff, not that that stuff is intrinsically bad. Bernie can still drink, it’s only Elton who can’t. Rock n’ roll is fun, and your eventual inability to handle that fun doesn’t retroactively mitigate the fun.
I loved this movie. I don’t fully understand why Bohemian Rhapsody was the smash while this is languishing – does the gay sex and the R rating make that big a difference? – but I do hope you give it a shot on a big screen where the music can play loud and wash over you. I saw this at a matinee full of old people who applauded after numbers, who audibly sobbed during scenes and who walked out singing the songs – this is the movie experience, this is the shared art experience, this is the love that a movie as wild and free and honest and full of shit as Rocketman can give you.