A musical biopic that understands its own music, that uses its songs not necessarily when they’re chronologically appropriate but when they fit emotionally and thematically, Rocketman beautifully and energetically tells the story of Elton John’s rise to and struggles with fame. Taron Egerton is notable for his work in the Kingsman films, but here he is given a true star role, imbuing his Elton with attitude, presence, and a bolshy walk. And, for the two of us in particular, it does us the great favour of giving us a new appreciation for the music, helping us realise that each of us has always taken both it and Elton’s cultural importance for granted.
The film is produced by Elton, functioning as a sort of autobiography, and although this justifiably raises questions of authenticity, honesty, filtering and bias, the film and man are so likeable, and the way in which it depicts his lowest points so open, the film completely sells its story and depiction of Elton’s character and those around him. (Though, as José describes, the coda in which we’re shown a modern, married, parental Elton, who is nothing like the one whose story we’ve just been told, does suggest that for all the authenticity we feel during the film, the message we’re left with is a somewhat disappointing, “anyway, that was a different Elton, I’m not him any more”.) Similarly, certain tropes common to gay stories, such as pining for a straight friend, being isolated emotionally, and being preyed upon by another, more confident, gay character – something for which we criticised Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody – are here rendered convincing and understandable.
We fall in love with its style and storytelling strategy, the risks it takes in building slightly cheesy set-pieces, set-pieces that indeed reflect a certain amount of cheesiness present in Elton himself. The film impressively and confidently narrativises its music, flowing into songs, turning emotionally-charged conversations smoothly into musical numbers, liberal new arrangements allowing Elton’s entire family to share their loneliness in I Want Love and making Elton’s decision to enter therapy a moment of trumpet-worthy triumph in Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. José doesn’t go for the climactic moment with Elton’s childhood self, but Mike is with it completely, tearing up – before Elton could heal, before he could love, before he could fight all his addictions and fears and pain, he first needed to learn to love himself!
Rocketman is simply wonderful. It deeply understands its own music and freely reworks it to give it new life, teaching us to love and appreciate it anew. It’s lively, funny, imaginative, bold and entirely engrossing. Don’t miss it.
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With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.