In any artform those who play it safe and by the rules are seldom rewarded with the fame and glory that they seek. Conformists have never been the ones remembered and admired, it is the bold who make a splash in our memories and when paying tribute to them one must live up to their equal daring. Elton John was one of the most dazzling artists of recent times, and it is only fitting that his biopic Rocketman (2019) be equal to his color and magic.
Rocketman is the story of musician Elton John’s life. The film jumps around a support-group meeting Elton (Taron Egerton) attends, as he recounts his life we flashback to specific moments. Through this ploy we see the shy Reginald Dwight change his name to Elton John, partner up with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and rise to fame through the 1970s. The film also focuses on Elton’s struggles with substance abuse and the exploitation from those around him once he became rich.
On paper the film seems as by the numbers as any musician’s biopic, however, Rocketman differs in the daring integration of John’s music into the film, which transforms it into a traditional musical with immersive choreography. The trailers for this film read “based on a true fantasy” and it very much plays out like a hybrid film, where the borders of the imaginary and the real are blurred. This was the perfect encapsulation of what a biopic should be, not a rundown of the facts and chronology (like Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)), but rather a peek at the emotional and creative journey of an artist. If one wanted to know Elton’s clear-cut life story, there is always Wikipedia; film is supposed to offer something different, making use of its visual medium and offer viewers something exclusive. By the end of Rocketman there is a deeper connection and understanding of the character of Elton John, making such an interaction almost personal.
Director Dexter Fletcher is able to showcase what “bold filmmaking” is; he never seemed to be compromised by any part of the story be it the drug-fueled scenes, the depictions of homosexual sex, or the extent of which certain visual fantasies could be pushed to At one point when singing “Rocketman” John literally turns into a human rocket and shoots up into the sky to transition into the next scene in a private jet. The ease of flowing between dialogue and heavily choreographed songs is such that viewers will find it hard to tell when a particular song ends and a real scene begins; the editing and directing are done so flawlessly the viewer is swept away.
But Fletcher is also able to conceive an emotional dissection of the character of Elton, from the first scenes when he is a child to the last moments on screen. The connection and escape between Elton and music itself is made very apparent. One early scene where Reginald is shunned by both his parents, sees him directing an imaginary orchestra in his dark bedroom, seeing the smiles of approval and love from the musicians, which translate the comfort in the art form that Reginald found. Later on when playing at his first big concert, Elton begins to float above the piano, and his audience begins to levitate as well, somehow showcasing that indescribable feeling of connection between listener and artist. Despite all of the flair and flamboyance on screen, Fletcher is also able to show restraint in certain key scenes, particularly moments that other movies of the genre feature some dramatic speech or witty one-line against doubters. While trying to speak back to his repressive parents, Elton doesn’t have a cathartic confrontation, instead a more realistic reaction of silence and internalized emotion is exuded.
Egerton had already broken out onto the Hollywood scene with the Kingsman films, but there seems to be a second ascension with Rocketman, in which he leaves viewer stunned with his transformation and talent. The dramatic scenes are impressive, with Egerton providing so much depth and emotional understanding of his character, that most of his more powerful moments come where he isn’t even saying anything. As the film went on one realized that the treasure of Egerton’s performance was more in what he was not saying, in the look behind the colored spectacles, than in any emotive speech. The dedication to the role goes to such a level that Egerton’s not only did his own singing, but he even adjusted his tone to sound like Elton. Knowing many biopics about living legends, I was half-expecting Elton John to feature in a cameo, and I frequently would think I spotted him; only to realize it was still Egerton, so immersive was his performance.
Rocketman is the psychoanalysis of a musical genius that one rarely gets in any medium today. The dazzling visual appeal of this movie alone should be reason enough to see it (not to mention the great music), but the emotional and dramatic depth that are provided by a bold Fletcher and an insuperable Egerton truly elevate this film to the heavens.