One of the challenges facing many biopics is the fact that many high-profile subjects often don’t have lives dramatic enough to fill a feature film. This causes many to either resort to tired and familiar storytelling tropes to fill the space, or to spin their wheels between set pieces. Some however think outside of the box to solve this problem, and that certainly applies to Dexter Fletcher’s ‘Rocketman’, his biopic of legendary rockstar Elton John. The dramatic arc of John’s life isn’t the sturdiest of traditional narratives, but with varying degrees of success, Fletcher and ‘Billy Elliot’ screenwriter Lee Hall lean on more imaginative ways to tell a story that, even with the many faults of the film, certainly deserves to be told.
Using the framing device of a drug rehab session, the film focuses on the early years of Elton John (Taron Egerton, ‘Eddie the Eagle’) from his childhood to his very sudden rise as the most successful recording artist on the planet through his working relationship with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, ‘Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool’), his complicated relationship with mother Shelia (Bryce Dallas Howard, ‘Jurassic World’) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), and his abusive romantic and professional relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden, TV's ‘Game of Thrones’). The collision of fame, frustration and coming to grips with his sexual identity results in a spiral of drugs, alcohol and sex that drive Elton to the edge of health and sanity.
By choosing to focus on a specific section of Elton’s life, the film finds a thematic focus that makes up for the lack of narrative detail. To compensate for this within the structure of the film, Fletcher and Lee attempt to shape ‘Rocketman’ as a more traditional jukebox musical, with Elton’s songs presented as musical-style set pieces, providing emotional commentary on the action of the film. It’s a very clever idea, especially as a way of capturing the theatrical gregariousness of Elton John, but unfortunately the film never commits to this conceit enough for it to work. For the most part, ‘Rocketman’ feels like a film on the way to being something special without finding the bravery to fully commit to it.
Hall’s screenplay feels more like a stage musical script, moving at a frenetic pace from moment to moment without allowing the space to sit, breathe and blossom, and at points simply ticking off important biographical dot-points. The musical numbers always begin with promise, with big casts and choreography, but most pull out just before the landing, so that none of them feel as satisfying as you desperately want them to be. This erratic and non-committal approach from script and songs robs the film not just of emotional satisfaction and resonance, but disrupts character arcs and performances, especially Taron Egerton as Elton John. He teeters on the edge of something great, and there’s no doubt he could knock it out of the ballpark, but the film doesn’t give him enough space or material to do that.
Where ‘Rocketman’ really shines are in those special moments where the film it could have been shines through. Many of the characters never feel fully developed, but the relationships certainly do, and there’s a kind of brutal honesty to ‘Rocketman’ that gives it genuine integrity. Elton’s spiral into chaos makes total sense, both from the abuse and opportunism of those around him, and his own complicity in his destructive decisions and the responsibility he takes for them. The film never excuses him for his choices, but finds their context as Elton does. What’s really thrilling about Elton’s arc in the film is his journey toward self-realisation, self-reliance and self-care, that he must be responsible for his own happiness and invest his heart and soul into that which brings him pleasure. This is where Egerton absolutely takes centre stage, showing a detailed, heartfelt and fully-committed performance, not to imitating his subject but to realising his inner life, using his circumstances to craft a portrait of a soul desperately searching for something he can’t articulate. The central relationship of the film is that which he has with Taupin, a spiritual brother as well as a emotional and creative partner, so beautifully realised by the ever-incredible Jamie Bell. Bernie becomes our eyes through the film, watching with deep sadness as Elton falls apart and there to cheer when he comes out the other side, and their relationship gives the film a lot of its integrity.
For the most part, ‘Rocketman’ feels like a film on the way to being something special without finding the bravery to fully commit to it.
The film is also refreshingly unapologetic about Elton’s actions, never playing coy about his alcoholism, drug addiction or sexuality. These aspects of his life are presented with no judgement other than the way in which he himself abuses or mishandles them, and certainly celebrates the emotional and physical joy of being a homosexual man discovering his power as a sexual being. It still errs on the side of safety in that respect, but less so than in most popular filmmaking. Elton is in a state of self-immolation, and the realisation of this on screen not only provides some of the film’s more brutal moments but lends it perhaps its most imaginative structural feature. Fletcher leaps imaginatively from moment to moment with energy and visual bombast, often jumping time and place very suddenly. In this way, the film reflects the fractured nature of memory and the consequential inconsistency and lack of logic that comes from a mind affected by substance abuse. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes jarring, sometimes unsettling, but it always gives you a sense of Elton’s experience through this period, one often lacking control or clarity. He doesn’t always have the skill to really pull it off, but this is often the most impressive aspect of Fletcher’s direction.
There’s so much that works about ‘Rocketman’, so the fact it never fully commits to its musical fantasy conceit is a bit of a disappointment. It ends up aligning most with Julie Taymor’s curious 2007 Beatles musical ‘Across the Universe’ - a really great idea and approach to the work of a musical artist that never finds its feet or the bravery to fully be itself. It’s still a moving and occasionally stirring portrait of Elton John, and while the lack of emotional or narrative detail in the screenplay never allows Taron Egerton to fully unleash his potential, he’s still a terrific Elton John and sings the hell out of these amazing songs. In the end, despite a refreshing honesty and some fascinating choices, ‘Rocketman’ is never as daring as it so desperately wants and needs and deserves to be, a film on the road to somewhere but never quite getting there.