Rocketman is way better than Bohemian Rhapsody

The Elton John biopic refreshes the formula and obscures its flaws with musical flights of fancy.

It seems likely that, with the runaway success of Bryan Singer’s absymal Bohemian Rhapsody, rock biopics are going to go through another golden age. This goes against all logic and good taste, considering that (a) many of them are not very good at all, and (b) pretty much all of them stick to the exact same structure of runaway success, 25 recognizable jams and a swift downfall that consists of them sitting alone in a giant fucking house drinking vodka from a boot and destroying priceless Ming vases while wearing only briefs. It struck me watching Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman that real life is severely going to hamper that recipe because, while the number of rock stars whose career path mirrors that bankable arc is certainly sizeable, it isn’t infinite. That Elton John’s life follows that path is, in itself, kind of a minor miracle for someone wanting to fictionalize it; that his life didn’t end tragically (and, in fact, hasn’t ended at all) isn’t.

Five minutes into Rocketman, young Reg Dwight (the artist about to be known as Elton Hercules John) bursts into song on his dreary British cul-de-sac. He sings “The Bitch Is Back,” a song that would only come to exist in 1974, with his grown self (Taron Egerton) while his family and neighbours engage in a complicated choreography. Rocketman doesn’t quite clear the bar of being a full-blown musical, but Fletcher establishes early on that it has no interest in being a point-form Wikipedia biopic in the traditional mold. In fact, this loose musical staging is a perfect way to excuse the genre’s most hackneyed clichés. The inevitable scene where a character sits down at a piano and belts out their best-known hit, pitch-perfect and identical to the recorded version, apparently completely off the dome? That’s here, but that sequence turns into an actual musical sequence rather than a finicky pantomime of historical events. (It also helps that John didn’t write very many of the lyrics to his songs; that was done by Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell.)

Even the framing device is familiar: it’s Elton John telling his story to a recovery group, clad in one of his trademark eccentric stage costumes. (It’s an orange, bird-inspired number with huge wings.) That device is traditionally designed to keep things on track and unfolding more or less in chronological fashion, something that Rocketman isn’t overly concerned with. Sure, things happen more or less in the order they must have in real life, but the songs are performed any which way with less of a concern for accuracy than you would expect. It takes most of the movie to get to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, and by the time we do, John isn’t even the one singing it!

All of this is more akin to the conventions of a Broadway show, but Rocketman isn’t all razzle-dazzle. Not every important moment is highlighted with a musical number, which leaves plenty of time for simplistic biopic-level psychology to take hold. John was never loved by his father, a taciturn and emotionless military man who moved out when the musician was a child; throughout his life and as he struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality, he continually seeks the kind of approval that his father never gave him. Though not exactly Brokeback Mountain on that end, Rocketman does go deeper than expected into John’s relationship with his business manager John Reid (Richard Madden). What begins as a romantic relationship turns into an uneven, tortured business one as Elton sinks deeper and deeper into his addictions.

It’s unfortunately here that Rocketman threatens to take a permanent downturn into the familiar. Simply put, there’s nothing inherently compelling about the darkest periods of the rich and famous because they’re exactly that: rich and famous. Here as in every biopic about a rockstar who got sober, the darkest periods of substance abuse are a sad bacchanal in which Elton routinely ignores lavish parties happening around him to drink vodka alone and mope. It’s rendered a little more affecting that Fletcher has properly explored John’s past, but it remains that the second half of the film is clichéd to the point that it simply can’t be excused away by the film’s previous flights of fancy. Even the musical sequences here are perilously on-the-nose — John’s “rock bottom” moment is quite literally illustrated by him going to the bottom of a pool and singing “Rocket Man” with his childhood self.

I still find it remarkable that Rocketman can barrel towards dogshit so often and manage to just barely avoid it every time. If Walk Hard made a strong case for putting the genre out of its misery indefinitely and Bohemian Rhapsody proved that children shouldn’t play with dead things, Rocketman proves that there’s a lot to gain by knocking down the constraints of the genre, even if it’s to put up another set of constraints. I still think that the best music biopic would be one that focuses on a single bullet point from the Wikipedia, but if you’re gonna go for this laboriously biographical approach, the least you could do is follow Rocketman’s lead. It’s always difficult for music biopics to find the balance between celebrating the catalogue and cataloguing the celebrations, but Rocketman offers a kind of solution: do both at the same time. ■

Rocketman is in theatres Friday, May 31. Watch the trailer here: