Throughout cinematic history, there exists a growing sub-genre of films dedicated toward taking the music of a single artist/group, or a collection of such, and utilizing said subject’s music to tell a story, be it an original premise completely unrelated to the music that binds it together or something more akin to your standard biopic. Jukebox musicals such as Across the Universe, Mamma Mia! and Rock of Ages stand as prime examples of this, something that operates outside the realm of your standard Phantom of the Opera or Cats, where the music truly is nothing more than lines of dialogue set to melody. On the other side of the coin, efforts like last year’s Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody serve as a simple documentation of the subject’s story, one that allows the signature music to exist somewhat in the background. Needless to say, there appears to be no set way to create a musical, but a variety of formulas seem to exist that eager directors have continued to follow as time has gone by.
Rocketman is something a bit different, a cross between your everyday, run-of-the-mill rock biography and the musicals that still devour the box office to this day. The story of the incomparable Elton John, from his early days as a talented piano-playing youth to his emergence from the depths of rehab in the early ’80s, this is a unique specimen, one led by an incredible cast with a star that stands out in every way possible.
As the titular character, Taron Edgerton is simply outstanding, possessing the rare gift of flawlessly inhabiting such a role with a stunning ability to sing and moments where one will swear it’s old footage of John rather than Edgerton prancing around in so many of the legendary costumes worn by John throughout his career. It’s a phenomenal portrayal, easily besting Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury as seen in Bohemian Rhapsody, a film which was largely helmed by director Dexter Fletcher following the studio’s separation with original helmsman Bryan Singer. With Rocketman, Fletcher finally gets the opportunity to take on a biography such as this from start to finish, and in reuniting with his Eddie the Eagle star Edgerton, it’s truly a match made in rock ‘n roll heaven. A recurring theme of John’s two identities dots Rocketman, showcasing the man’s struggle between his original name & reserved persona of Reginald Dwight and the flamboyant, outlandish, drug-and-alcohol fueled Elton John, something which Edgerton handles well.
The rest of the cast holds their own in a number of outstanding ways-Bryce Dallas Howard is somewhat unrecognizable in the best way possible as John’s mother Sheila, adopting a convincing English accent and making the most of her scenes with the front-man. It’s an interesting relationship to witness as the film progresses, unlike Steven Mackintosh as his father Stanley, who exits the film early save for a few appearances later on. This is, however, in keeping with the real life father-son dynamic the two shared, and fortunately, for their limited interactions onscreen, all are easy to follow and help to make sense of why John’s life was, in all honesty, quite sad.
As his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, Jamie Bell seemingly jams the final nail into the coffin that is audience recollection of his participation in 2015’s disastrous Fantastic Four with a stunning performance and convincing rapport with Edgerton. Richard Madden as John’s manager/lover John Reid, who coincidentally also worked with Queen, does a similarly fine job, even if his character’s arc seems to exist solely as one of the film’s obligatory villains as time goes by. He is, however, excellent in the role, with a suave demeanor and an ability to show his change from someone who cares for John to an all-business cold-heart that seems to wholeheartedly despise his client as their relationship deteriorates. Additionally, Stephen Graham as Dick James, the record label exec who helped to break John into the mainstream, handles his part just fine, though he does possess shades of Mike Myers in Bohemian Rhapsody whether intentional or not, with groan-worthy lines that tee up later events in John’s life, all of which could easily be viewed as fan service-y exposition. That said, Charlie Rowe as James’ assistant Ray Williams does a much better job, as does Tate Donovan as the ostentatious Troubadour club owner where John made his United States solo debut, to the point where I wished more screentime could be devoted to these two admittedly minor characters. Plus, I’ll never complain about seeing the man who played Jimmy on The O.C. back on his feet once again.
Unfortunately, it’s hard for Rocketman to be seen as anything other than a Bohemian Rhapsody clone-though attempts are indeed made to allow the film to stand on its own, it still tends to drift into the territory last occupied by Malek and company, possibly an indication that Fletcher’s ability to uniquely direct a film like this is somewhat limited. Yes, efforts do take place to avoid liberties being taken with the source material, but exceptions always occur, and numerous moments can’t help but drift into cliché more often than not. From the strict, harsh father figure, to the demanding, by-the-books record label head, to the scenes that show him composing his classic hits, they’re all tropes we’ve seen before, even down to how he acquired his name-it’s nowhere near as eye-rolling as to how Han Solo crafted his moniker, and it’s hard to argue with anything that actually took place in the singer’s life, but when one such scene follows another time and time again, it does start to get old. Not only that, but the melodramatic way certain characters deliver their lines starts the movie off on an awkward foot, with the two actors playing the two younger versions of John the guiltiest of all the film’s culprits in this regard – luckily, this problem is resolved rather quickly. Regrettably, Rocketman seems to serve as an example of another film that could easily have been much longer-certain noteworthy events are either left out entirely, such as a key moment early in his career where he fired his band, or barely touched on, such as his later years that I’m sure fans will clamor to witness but will sadly be left empty-handed.
That said, the soundtrack is where the real magic happens-with Edgerton leading the charge on every song and the rest of the cast surprisingly contributing magnificently with above average voices themselves – Rocketman stands as a complete success in casting people who actually know how to carry a tune. These scenes are also where Rocketman attempts to distance itself from the prototypical-the autobiographical nature of John’s songbook pushes the film forward and demonstrate Fletcher’s attempts to hybridize the story with the energy of a classic musical. Opening number The Bitch Is Back immediately explodes with song-and-dance joy, even if it’s unfortunately too short, while a noteworthy highlight of the film comes a few numbers later with the thunderous Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting sequence, which contains a transition from John’s childhood playing in bars to his young adult years. Pinball Wizard, which turns up later and serves as a montage showing off some of John’s outrageous stage-wear, also could’ve been longer, but still works on every other level. Another one that could have benefited from a few extra bars of music is the fun studio footage of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, and while a downtrodden moment later on in Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me also suffers from this issue, it’s such a beautiful scene that all can’t help but be forgiven. In showing a moment of John at one of his lows, combined with the stunning voice of Edgerton, it might be one of the film’s best tunes.
However, not every song comes off quite as convincing. I Want Love, which early on showcases the growing strain and distance between a young Elton John and his family, is a bit awkward and over-the-top in trying to accomplish this feat, while a later scene showing John write Your Song in his family living room with Taupin looking on comes off as just plain clumsy, even if I’ll always love that song and Edgerton performs it well. John’s debut at the Troubadour following his initial success shows the man performing Crocodile Rock, which drifts into a fantastical Across the Universe-esque vibe and echoes every similar film which possesses an exciting scene where the band/artist performs their big hit for the first time. The dreamy performance of Rocketman starts off, in all honesty, horribly, with the actor who played the youngest version of John returning to open the song with a voice that clearly needs some developing, but fortunately everything following Edgerton’s entrance instantly elevates the quality all the way to the end.
Additionally, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road takes place in a restaurant during the film’s third act, which sadly doesn’t quite work despite the vocals, and Tiny Dancer is a surprisingly low-key moment as John wanders through a party, seemingly trying to find himself as he struggles with loneliness-not something one might expect from such a lively tune, or one that soundtracks one of my favorite scenes in Almost Famous. And yes, certain hits are barely touched on or left out completely-would it really have been that hard to include a few notes from Love Lies Bleeding/Funeral for a Friend? Bohemian Rhapsody had the same problem, and when you consider the impressive discography of both subjects it’s really a shame. Rocketman could easily have been much longer, but in such a situation it’s clear that the depressing journey John underwent as his career took off would only have been emphasized further-his descent into substance abuse happens abruptly during the first act, which when combined with the low-tempo numbers that permeate much of the latter portions of the film present John as a tormented figure rich with issues and devoid of the sort of relationships one needs to properly function as a human being.
At the end of the day, Rocketman really is nothing more than a vehicle for the extraordinary Taron Edgerton, with supporting cast members that hold their own and music that truly couldn’t have been better – all of which struggle to compete with the sad story and scenes lifted from every musical biography that came before. Fortunately, it does end well, with a full circle moment and final number that easily stands alongside Rhapsody‘s Live Aid centerpiece – it’s in these moments that the highlights of Rocketman can be appreciated, a movie that may not break the new ground of which it was hoping, but still comes loaded with plenty to enjoy. It’s clear that Fletcher knows how to bring out the best in Edgerton. There’s definitely talent here – this may very well be a team poised for something even better, which if they utilize Rocketman‘s highlights, while shedding the lackluster, could be something truly special. Like the titular song suggests, Elton John may have once burned out his fuse alone, but for Taron Edgerton, the fuse that is his career has only just been lit.