This film chronicles a flamboyant, iconic singer from his meteoric rise to superstardom in the 1970s, to hitting rock bottom from sex and drugs and rock and roll, to his triumphant comeback in the mid-1980s. Wait, is this Bohemian Rhapsody? No, this time instead Queen’s Freddie Mercury, it’s a musical biopic of pop star Elton John, whose life and travails are really not too far off from Mercury’s if you squint just a little.
I’d like to say where Bohemian failed (the muddy timelines, the so-so script), Rocketman soars. But unlike a lot of critics that seem to be falling all over this one, I couldn’t help but think that Rocketman was reaching for pop greatness, but not quite achieving it.
Billing itself as a musical fantasy, Rocketman works best when it takes that description literally. Following young Reginald Dwight as he grows from a lonely child prodigy to a confident performer reinventing himself as Elton John, the film gives an inkling of what it could have become early on. Young Reggie’s family (including his distracted mom, his emotionally cold father, and his supportive grandmother) trade longing verses of “I Want Love” as they wander alone through the rooms of their home. Later, when Reggie is a teen, a bar performance of “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” spills into a neighboring carnival with exuberant youthful dancing. And when the newly dubbed Elton debuts at his breakthrough stint at L.A.’s Troubadour club, the audience and performer connect so that they are all literally levitating during a raucous version of “Crocodile Rock”. Those are the moments when Rocketman works its magic.
But this is also a by-the-numbers biopic, with the awkward and kind of cringey framing device of a rock-bottom older Elton reflecting on his life of excess and addiction through group therapy. Sitting in the therapy circle, he is initially wearing one of his outrageous stage costumes, a devil outfit, which he gradually strips away through the film (get it?) until he literally hugs his inner child (not kidding, and not really a spoiler). Ugh. Meanwhile, Rocketman makes an exclamation point to deliver what Rhapsody didn’t with its PG-13 rating: gay sex and lots and lots of drugs. The more blatant acknowledgement of Elton’s gay affairs is matter-of-fact refreshing, but how many drug and alcohol benders must one watch in a biopic? Apparently, all of them.
Now what I liked: Early on, it is pretty clearly established that the true love story in this film is between Elton and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, who meet at a record label almost by chance, but prove to be one of the most successful partnerships of all time in pop music. As Bernie, Jamie Bell is simply lovely. Bernie is straight but accepts his buddy Elton’s homosexuality with a shrug because they are a team. And try not to get a little weepy during the early scene where Elton sits down at his mum’s living room piano and picks out a tune for the lyrics Bernie has just handed to him. The song? “Your Song,” of course, which will now be in my head as a lovingly sweet ode to a best friend. “I hope you don’t mind / I hope you don’t mind / that I put down in words / How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.” (Sob!)
Because their songs are so good, I was hoping for more moments like this. Rocketman is certainly chock full of sing-along-able hits, but the rest of the film never matches that early emotional high. I kept thinking that the story would have worked better as a full-on musical. Get rid of some of the dramatic (and repeated drug use) padding that fill out much of the second half, put it on stage, and you’ve got yourself a great stage musical. As far as the film, it will probably still be massive hit regardless, but it felt like it could have (and should have been) so much more.