Music biopics seem to be all the rage today with many famous and inspirational rock n’ roll artists getting a crack at their story being told on the big screen. Rocketman, the newest flick to follow this trend, focuses on the life and work of legendary artist Elton John. The film attempts to chronicle the turbulent life John lived from his childhood years to his stint in rehab after years of drug addiction. This is director Dexter Fletcher’s second foray into the world of rock and roll in a very short time, for he finished Bohemian Rhapsody following Bryan Singer’s sudden departure. Comparisons between Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody are inevitable given the similarity in subject matter and the proximity of release date, so I will not shy away from the occasional reference to the Freddie Mercury biopic. However, Rocketman is superior in almost every way to the complete and utter mess that Bohemian Rhapsody was, so comparisons may be a little redundant.
The film begins with John (Taron Egerton) making a late and dramatic entrance into an alcoholic anonymous meeting, wearing one of his famous flamboyant and over-the-top outfits among a crowd of normal people. Fletcher immediately lets the audience know that John is different from the average rockstar, and by interrupting this heartfelt scene with a Broadway-esque performance of “The Bitch is Back,” he clearly states that his movie is the same kind of different. This exemplifies one of many things Rocketman gets right: the movie itself reflects John’s attitude on life. It would be simple for any film to chronicle the life of a rockstar using typical means, but the creators of Rocketman have an alternative plan. They make a full-on Broadway-style musical showcase of Elton John’s classic songs, which in and of itself sets this movie apart from any other film of the same subject matter.
I knew I was in for a wild ride when the film exploded into a high-energy rendition of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” This sequence is one of the most well-choreographed and magical sequences of music in the past couple years of visual media, and it is also done in one seemingly-continuous shot. I was half-expecting the theater around me to jump up and start dancing along with the music, and it made me want to sing along even though I didn’t know all of the words. Every song throughout the movie is used in a fitting place in John’s story, making the audience truly feel the emotions that the songs were made to get across in the first place. The performance of “Your Song” is beautiful and tear-jerking, and the late inclusion of “I’m Still Standing” is a fun ode to the music style of the time while also delivering an uplifting conclusion to the story.
I call all of these songs “performances” because they are not only showcasing Elton John’s songwriting talent, but also the talent of the actors singing them, in particular Taron Egerton as John himself. Egerton gives Lupita Nyong’o a run for her money for the best performance of 2019 by portraying John as he was while simultaneously adding his own flavor to it. Not one note is lip-synced in the entire film; Egerton nails every song by using his own voice and by capturing the spirit of Elton John better than any other actor could have possibly done. This isn’t simply an impression of a famous rock artist but an embodiment of the man he is, and in this way Egerton makes Rami Malek’s “Oscar-winning” performance in Bohemian Rhapsody look like a cheap imitation.
The creators knew how to handle every aspect of John’s life with creativity while also being realistic, including his drug addiction and his homosexuality. The movie understands what it means to be gay and how to handle the relationships John had with his peers in a natural and meaningful way. It also makes the audience understand his perspective even when he is doing more cocaine in one day than many drug addicts do in their lifetime. By the end, viewers truly understand who Elton John is as a person and what makes him tick. This is the one thing a biopic should do, but sadly Rocketman seems to be unique in having this quality, for all Bohemian Rhapsody does is leave the audience confused as to whether Freddie Mercury was a decent person or not.
There are some minor pacing issues in Rocketman and time seems to rush by in certain scenes, but the musical numbers seem to justify the quick passage of time. The only montage sequences are included within musical performances, which makes them seem less forced than most montage sequences seem to be. The film also is slightly lesser in quality when John is a child than when he is an adult, but even this is turned around by the unique manner in which Fletcher directs the film.
If Rocketman were the film equivalent of sitting in the front row of an Elton John concert in his prime, Bohemian Rhapsody is akin to sitting outside of the venue during a Queen & Adam Lambert concert and trying to understand Mercury based on the muffled sounds leaking through the closed doors. This film feels like a complete vision that came to life through a talented director and cast, not a mishmash of ideas that felt directed by a studio instead of a person. Fans of Elton John will leave with their feelings about him reinforced, and people who haven’t listened to him will get in their car and immediately start blasting his greatest hits. Rocketman is a a triumph, and skipping out on this experience in favor of Booksmart or many other films out right now would be a mistake.
I give Rocketman an A-.