For a film about a man living a lengthy period of his life in extremes, Rocketman’s strengths and weaknesses also inhabit the poles. There are choices made in Lee Hall’s script that treat the audience with contempt, doubly so when the better choice exists in the film. Because this is a biopic, with all that entails, some pat psychoanalyzing must be engaged in. Rich and famous rock stars must go overboard with substances and sex not because both are readily available behind every corner, but because of one single thing in their childhoods. For Elton, that’s his father rejecting his plaintive requests for a hug, like mid-century Britons never had a cold parent before. The father remarries when Elton’s an adult and has more sons, sons that he plays with and hugs while Elton watches. Just include the watching, and Rocketman becomes less irritating. These examples abound, especially when the film returns to its unnecessary framing device and its Metaphors 101 choice to have Elton wearing a little less of his costume in each scene. Get it, he’s getting naked, physically and emotionally. A film about Elton John has a built-in license for boldness and grand displays when he’s performing. Why Hall couldn’t get all his bludgeoning out where it’s appropriate is a mystery.
Rocketman taketh away, and it giveth, often in big doses. The aforementioned set pieces scored to Elton’s greatest hits are imaginative and approach the transcendence of adoration while also communicating the invisible line between natural and chemically-boosted showmanship, if the difference even exists. For all of Bohemian Rhapsody’s pedantic assemblage of giant crowds and shot-for-shot recreations of Queen shows, Rocketman only gets the costumes right and lets Egerton do his thing under Fletcher’s invigorating eye. Despite calls for toning down the film’s gay material from anxious studio executives and repressive governments, Rocketman commits to its protagonist’s sexuality in a way that Bohemain Rhapsody did not. There’s no scolding or devilish temptation here, but a male gaze applied to male bodies and a pawing and passionate intimacy between Elton and Reid. While John’s father is a source of basic withholding, his mother is a source of practically taboo ambivalence toward her child. She wasn’t supposed to be with her ex-husband based on their root incompatibility and she never felt called to be a mother either. While John’s father has more kids in his next marriage, she, tellingly, does not. Despite the film presenting the possibility, Howard doesn’t play her as an unfeeling monster, but as a person who wouldn’t consign herself to the choices she felt were being made for her.
If songbook musicals in the form of biopics are going to continue to be made in this fashion, Rocketman is at least a step in the right direction. 2019 provided alternatives approaches and kept the songs with Yesterday and Blinded By the Light, but there are Aretha Franklin and Elvis biopics, among others, on the horizon. Those future films would be wise to take the verve of Fletcher’s setpieces and the intensity of Egerton’s performance, and eschew the framing devices and the psychologizing. No one wants to start an Elvis biopic as he regales a crew of hangers-on about his life, only to have to excuse himself for a fateful trip to the toilet as the film reaches its credits. C+