Right off the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody (which I still have not seen), director Dexter Fletcher along with screenwriter Lee Hall attempt to tell the tale of Elton John, a man who needs no introduction but whose life on screen is a mere shadow of the real life lived. Biopics of musicians are tricky territory for film, as fans often walk away pointing out all of the errors of the story, while non-fans walk away with just snippets of the whole. Although Rocketman falters partly because of anachronisms (and there are many), its real downfall is its inconsistent story-telling technique and its failure to capture the essence of the man being portrayed.
It starts off oh so promisingly, with a beaten down John admitting himself into rehab and addressing his younger self, who unexpectedly belts out “The Bitch Is Back” before transporting both Eltons to the streets of 1940s London, with gloriously saturated colors and a gaggle of dancers accompanying the song. While witnessing this opening number, I think – okay, we’re in for a fanciful ride of rehabbing Elton looking back on glimpses of his life, out of order, grand, exaggerated, and accompanied by one of the finest musical oeuvres of the 20th Century. I’m all in.
But the story devolves quickly into a very chronological and predictable narration of Elton’s broken life that betrays the promising start to the film. We’re introduced to John’s uninterested father, his inconsistent mother and his supportive grandmother, and while there is some pain portrayed for sure, none of it is so terribly traumatic that it explains what happens later in John’s life – when his addictions manifest themselves into massively self-destructive acts. By the time he auditions for music publisher Dick James, pounding out snippets of songs not composed until the 1980s (“I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” and “Sad Songs”) the movie has lost all credibility: it’s neither a fanciful dreamlike whirlwind nor is it an accurate narrative. Instead, it vacillates between a very boring and inaccurate portrayal of Elton’s real life and jarring dreamlike scenes that bear no relation to what’s preceded them.
More troubling is the lack of joy portrayed in the film. Yes, the story is coming from the viewpoint of Elton at his lowest point in life, but to deny this character the sheer elation he experienced in the 1970s is to deny the man his due. The now-sober Elton has admitted many times that he had a blast during the 70s, despite – or perhaps because of – his self-destructive tendencies. In the film, he’s always somber, always self-conscious, always struggling, so that the scene at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, where Elton is first discovered by American audiences and where he and his nameless band levitate during their performance, utterly falls flat. It should have been electric. Near the film’s end, Elton tells his mother, “I’ve fucked everything that moves. I’ve taken every drug known to man. All of them. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” The audience would be correct to cock their heads in confusion and utter, “Huh?” We didn’t get to see Elton enjoy a second of it, and the only thing Elton John fucks on film is his manager John Reid.
And why on earth is the band nameless? Throughout John’s heyday, his bandmates Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson were essential. There are no scenes showing their camaraderie. No scenes where the musicians bring the songs to life, making brilliant recordings at the Chateau d'Hérouville in France. No scene of them appearing at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving Day in 1974 with none other than John Lennon in what was to be his last live performance. Not everything could be included – I get it – but some part of their glorious ride should have been depicted.
I found it particularly funny that in the scene in which John fleas to rehab, they show the Twin Towers among the New York Skyline, as if that historical accuracy was essential, but not the fact that John went to rehab in Chicago. Look, you can play with facts in films. I get it. Artistic license is important (just ask Oliver Stone), but why work so hard on irrelevant facts and not at all on others that Elton John fans will deem essential? You want Elton to sing “I’m Still Standing” after rehab instead of eight years before, that’s cool with me, because the lyrics of the song support the scene. But what is gained by making the band a four-piece instead of a three-piece at the Troubadour, or having Elton play “Crocodile Rock” three years before its release? If you’re going for fantasy, go all in. If you’re going for a realistic biopic, stick to as many facts as you can.
The film does shine in a few different ways besides the opening scene. Taron Egerton is terrific, and he looks enough like John to pull off the ruse. He also sings the material, which is impressive. I also love the use of John’s musical themes in the orchestral score, sometimes very subtly. And the scene of John playing ”Pinball Wizard” while rotating between costumes, signifying not only the passage of time but his rise to superstardom, work extremely well.
Unfortunately, little else about the film does.