After seeing the Elton John musical fantasia “Rocket Man,” I’m not going to complain anymore that musical biopics tend to be bundles of cliches that hit the same beats, or for that matter, that the classic spoof “Walk Hard” should’ve killed off the genre for good. “Blazing Saddles,” brilliant as it was, didn’t kill the Western, nor did it inoculate viewers against ever again getting wrapped up in the story of stalwart heroes battling corrupt politicians and land barons. And beyond that, almost any rock star or rapper or country star who’s famous enough to have a Hollywood biopic made about them probably either died young or overcame most of their demons and achieved enough personal equilibrium to find some sort of happiness — enough to sign off on a film about their lives with a happy (or happy-ish) ending; so it’s probably inevitable that such films are going to contain a lot of similar moments, including the scene where the main character realizes they’re truly gifted, the scene where they figure out their stage name and persona, the scene where they record their first number one record, the montage of them succumbing to success and excess, the “bottoming out” scene, and so forth.
If anything, this retelling of Elton John’s life story is proof that, as the founder of this site famously observed, it’s not what a movie is about, but how it’s about it. It’s the movie that “Bohemian Rhapsody” should have been—and that would seem clear even if the film didn’t share superficial points of comparison with the Mercury biopic (including the closeted gay glam rocker hero, the copious drug use, and the 1960s-1980s setting), and even if it hadn’t been directed by Dexter Fletcher, who took over the Freddie Mercury biopic after Bryan Singer’s participation was ended by reports of sexual misconduct.
What a pleasure it is to see a widescreen rock ‘n’ roll quasi-musical and period piece in which every scene and sequence has been thought through at the level of individual shots, and where every idea glides kinetically into every other idea, often through via smart match cuts, as when the teenage Elton bursts through the broken plank of a fence during the “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” and a twenty-something Elton emerges on the other side.
There’s no possible way that a film like this could have been made in an earlier era, homophobia being what it was (and still is; it’s 2019, and this is supposedly the first major studio release with an explicit gay sex scene). And yet the totality of it feels very old fashioned, from a craft point-of-view, almost as if it could’ve been staged and executed on the old MGM lot, right around the time that color film started being widely used. The movie was shot digitally, like nearly every other major release made these days, and yet Fletcher and his crew seem to have decided to pretend that they were working with very heavy old film cameras, relying on careful planning (and mental pre-editing) to avoid shooting more than was needed. Connoisseurs of all the different ways of staging and filming a musical number will love the smorgasbord of modes that the film operates in—everything from an acrobatic, one-take number in the spirit of “Absolute Beginners,” to a more traditionally choreographed song-and-dance/chorus-line montage, to a jittery, handheld scene that feels like something out of a D.A. Pennebaker documentary from the 1960s, to a more intimate sequence expressed entirely through a simple exchange of closeups.
Despite its ambition and comprehensive spirit, the movie stays on track. This is due to Fletcher’s keen eye and ear, which proves that there’s more to directing a movie musical than choreographing musical numbers with a lot of cameras and then cutting quickly between the various angles; to the film’s mastery of tone, which is light-footed, often bordering on self-parody, yet always sincere and serious; and to its superb casting, particularly the lead. Playing John from his early twenties onward, “Kingsman” costar Taron Egerton gives an emotionally transparent, often anguished performance, by turns reminiscent of James Cagney and the young Leonardo DiCaprio — the kind of star turn where you often forget you’re watching an actor, let alone one portraying a very famous person, and instead feel as if it’s just your dear mate Elton sitting across from you, lying to himself about genuinely wanting to marry a woman, getting snockered while hiding from a party in his own house, or pounding out a hypnotic melody on a saloon piano after warning a middle-aged macho man not to put his beer on top of the instrument because it’ll get knocked off (by barfighting, presumably, though Sir Elton banged those keys so hard that it might’ve happened anyway).
As directed by Fletcher and written by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliott”), the film’s compacted storytelling and foregrounded artificiality puts a rather knowing frame around moments that might otherwise be dismissable as too familiar, even cliched. This is most obvious in the movie’s framing device, wherein John enters rehab after abandoning a Madison Square Garden concert, clomping straight out of the arena in his platform shoes and a winged “devil” outfit while haloed by heavenly light, then pushing open the door to the rehab facility (another excellent use of match cutting in a film filled with them) and joining a group therapy session for addicts that’s already in progress. That it’s unclear how much contiguous time is passing during this therapy session/framing device is just one aspect of the film’s gentle cheekiness. It’s doubtful that a bunch of addicts with their own issues would sit there for two-plus hours listening to one person’s stories, even if that person were one of the world’s bestselling recording artists, but Fletcher signals from frame one that none of this is meant to be taken literally. It’s not The Truth, it’s Elton’s Truth, eliding the harshest kinds of self-criticism but not distorting the basic fact of years of destructive behavior: a story dictated more by feelings than facts.
It’s all laid out in the condensed and succinct terminology of either therapy or pop songwriting (one being an extension of the other a lot of the time). The main story is Elton learning to accept his invented self as his true self and not be beholden to anyone else’s expectations for him, particularly when they’re the byproduct of a sexually repressed, gay-hating, emotionally constipated Western culture. The secondary story, nearly as affecting and more cleanly told, is about the artistic collaboration between John and his regular lyric writer Bernie Taupin (“Billy Elliott” star Jamie Bell), which spanned the decades, and ultimately proved a greater source of emotional and artistic stability than any of the relationships Elton got entangled in (at least until 1993, when he met his future husband David Furnish, with whom he would raise two sons). The mutual respect and genuine love demonstrated by these two men for each other is all the more moving for being undersold, particularly when the two have what might have been their only serious fight backstage at a concert, and Elton nearly walks away, then stops, takes Bernie by the wrist, and apologizes on the spot. (This film is a stage musical waiting to happen, and one suspects that it eventually will happen: it’s a virtual “Billy Elliott” reunion event anyway, including John, who wrote original music for the Broadway show adapted from the film.)
All of it, even the most wrenching or unabashedly sentimental stuff, has a touch of the tall-tale, whether it’s the scenes flashing back to Sir Elton’s childhood as a musically gifted but sexually repressed middle-class gay boy (Elton’s innate genius and true sexual identity bursting out in musical numbers treating suburban cul-de-sacs and city fairgrounds as soundstages); the moment where Elton attempts suicide by trying to drown himself in his Hollywood mansion’s swimming pool during a party and encountering his childhood self on the bottom wearing a circa-1950s domed “space man” outfit, playing and singing “Rocketman” on a toy piano, tiny bubbles emitting from both of their mouths; and a genuinely powerful scene later in the movie where Elton sees important people in his life strolling into the group-therapy room (not real people, but apparitions from his psyche, distilled into people-as-issues) and ultimately approaches his younger self again and kneels before him in what could be a gesture of either humility or contrition (or both, or something else).
And then young Elton asks adult Elton if he wants a hug. Of course the answer is yes. It’s not just what he wants. It’s what we want. And this is not only the kind of film where the older version of a character could hug his inner child, literally as well as figuratively, it’s the kind of movie that sets its own terms so clearly and unaffectedly that when we’re on the cusp of such a moment, we lean forward in our seats in anticipation, because we want that hug, need that hug, and won’t feel truly satisfied unless we get it — because dammit, you don’t pay to see a film like “Rocketman” without on some level wanting its suffering hero to give his inner child a hug. This is a movie that understands perfectly what it is and what we want from it. This is how you do this kind of movie: loud, glittery, shameless, with feeling, and dazzling control of craft.