Remember when BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY won four Oscars? Please remember that fact when you go to see the far superior Elton John bio-musical, ROCKETMAN, and remember it even harder when this Oscar season sputters into gear, because I can already think of a handful of nominations I would like to award to this film.
Not to get ahead of myself: ROCKETMAN has plenty of problems, mostly in the fact that by its very nature it can’t avoid being pandering to Elton John fans. This is a studio venture through and through, and so it needs to hit certain beats: Elton’s childhood struggle, paper-thin characterizations of his parents, breaking through being different, people fawning over his talents in the background like they’re witnessing a heavenly spotlight shine over him, the fortuitous meetings (some of them even presented in painstaking slow-motion and a blast of operatic chorus music, because the moment alone would’ve been too subtle), the cantankerous record producer who hates the music because he has to because story mechanics tell us we need conflict. Yes, all of these tropes are present in ROCKETMAN, some thinner, some looming, but so did BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY and that won four Oscars, so to hell with it (I’m not bitter, why are you calling me bitter?).
But ROCKETMAN has the advantage of being directed by one person. Most of BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY was directed by Bryan Singer before he was removed (for what should be obvious reasons by now—if not, look it up), and replaced by ROCKETMAN’s director, Dexter Fletcher. And so the film doesn’t feel disjointed, it isn’t plagued with bizarre editing choices, and it doesn’t rely on an eighteen-minute crescendo to service as the film’s climax. And I didn’t despise BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY—the Live Aid sequence is the peak of the film—but it does feel manufactured far too often. And while ROCKETMAN is often in step with RHAPSODY’s less-than-ideal storytelling beats, the film starts to stray into emotional territory that RHAPSODY wouldn’t dare cover. In RHAPSODY, Freddie falls into a turbulent rock star life, but the music is treated as a safety net; as in, Yeah, he did these irresponsible things, but isn’t the music great?! Whereas in ROCKETMAN, the film uses Elton’s music to punctuate the emotional state in the given scene, and though Elton John also goes through a turbulent rock star life, at the core of it is his isolation, his battle to love himself, rather than just a fuzzy hug of the nostalgic music itself. As a result, ROCKETMAN achieves a stronger emotional core, and ultimately gives us a more satisfying story.
Part of what helps ROCKETMAN along is, indeed, how it uses that music. The first twenty minutes of the film is a tad stilted, but once Egerton shows up, shoots through a wooden fence and dances to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” he injects the film with manic energy. He looks the part and he sings the part; he smashes both the notes and the emotional beats of the film. I remarked at every face he pulled in every situation. Sometimes just staring in his watery eyes could make me feel for him, while other times he’d shout and I could sense the pain in the hoarseness of his voice, and when he strutted onto a stage, he embodied Elton John’s performance persona to the last detail. The year is roughly halfway over, so I say this somewhat reservedly, but it’s certainly my favorite performance of the year thus far. And after the first act, he guides this film along with the impressive supporting cast. The new musical renditions of his hits work well both in their new arrangements and their ability to help push the story along.
I appreciate this film for the narrative risks it takes and the cohesive musical style it achieves. While it’s not perfect, not even especially great,it ended up surprising me. I’m not a particularly older person (I turn 30 this month), but I grew up with this music (Queen, too, if you’re curious). Elton John’s more soulful songs were the quieter, end-of-the-night tunes I played for myself when I felt pensive, when I dared to consider a greater life for myself. The character arc this film grants Elton is not far away from how those songs made me feel back then, when I would stare into a CRT monitor and “Your Song” would rumble through my inferior speakers, and the lyrics and melody would make me tear up, and make me believe in art.
ROCKETMAN is still standing, er, playing in theatrers in North America.