Perhaps the best a biographical story can wish for is a film that captures its unique spirit and style, both in form and function. In that sense, the extensive dramatization of Elton John’s life – directed by Dexter Fletcher – is a worthy tribute, if I don’t call it a compliment to John or the film.
I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t love Elton John – a person or his music – and I doubt there’s anyone in my generation (who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s) who hasn’t absorbed his discography so deeply that almost every song still sounds like an old friend. As his girlfriend and co-author Bernie Taupin, whom he has written all his life, says, Elton John’s music has always been incredibly entertaining: infectious, unforgettable, poetic, but never provocative, sentimental. And his style was so incredibly compressed that he almost became a parody in itself, ignoring the gender-specific provocations of his glam rock inspiration. It was exaggerated, but it was never really abrupt, because we always felt that Elton himself was involved in the joke. Behind absurdly multicoloured costumes, extravagant stage antiques and a seemingly hedonistic private life was always a gentle, bald, somewhat careless man, as funny as he pretended to be, who always – in such an aggressive and charming way – tried to please.
Rocketman is the perfect tribute to this wild and entertaining showman, a character who has been loved and known for almost 50 years and has never been taken seriously. The film is surprisingly fascinating with its naked desire to please, emotionally honest on a very superficial level and in such a grotesquely shocking and kitschy way that it sometimes reaches moments that seem fleeting and transcendent. According to the theme it is a fascinating and superficially moving entertainment, and only when the music fades and the glow fades, one realizes that it doesn’t really say anything important.
The first thing you need to know – whether you accept this as a recommendation or a warning – is that Rocketman is not really a biophotography: It’s a musical fantasy from a jukebox. Rocketman rewrites Elton John’s catalogue with musicians like the Jersey Boys (Frankie Valley), Beautiful (Carol King) and Movin’ Out (Billy Joel) to tell the story of his life (without a nasty attachment to historical accuracy). From his brave beginnings, in which John (Taron Egerton) bravely went through a detox group disguised as a winged and feathered devil, to his rise to mega-status in the 1970s and 1980s, to his fall into and out of drug rehabilitation in 1990, we move from a fluid and associative freedom of memory to his beginnings as little Reginald Dwight in England in the 1950s.
All the rhythms of Elton John’s current story are painfully familiar from hundreds of other fairy tales, and Rocketman will never convince us that the concrete (and already well-documented) version of John’s story was particularly interesting or romantic, let alone that it had to be told. There is no revelation, much less self-examination and revelation. Even if you study the dark aspects of John’s life, his cold-bloodedly disapproving parents, his quarrels with various friends and lovers, and his excessive abuse of drugs and alcohol – Rocketeer has a somewhat innocent atmosphere in his story. All this is felt on the surface, as if one can only imagine the sins that already belonged to Elton John and which he made public and which he himself forgave a long time ago.
And Racketman’s storylines are not conducive to the film or to Elton John’s life. Rocketman stages it as a story about the search for identity and the desire for true love, and then releases these tasks at the end of the film for a series of title cards. Personally, I find John’s life and career much more interesting than the well-preserved traces of his fame and drug addiction. Tell me about the encounter with the love of his life, David Furnish, just a few years after Rocketman died. Tell me how he created an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention fund. It may not be as dramatic as overdoses and orgies, but tell me how your thirty years of concerts at Westminster Abbey and the Queen’s Knighthood, which is a gay pop star among gay pop musicians, ended. It’s an interesting story that can help us understand who this man really is, not just who he used to be.
So neither the life story of the subject nor the understanding of the film justifies the existence of The Rocketeer. On the contrary, the charm of the film – and that charm is largely due to the exuberant contribution of two men: star Taron Egerton and director Dexter Fletcher.
The film has many supporters (including Jamie Bell as Taupin, Richard Madden in the somewhat sinister role of Elton’s lover and John Reed, and a funny twist for Stephen Graham as the producer of Dick James records’ roughs). But it all depends on Egerton’s performance, because he himself skilfully interprets all the songs in almost every scene. Egerton is not the strongest singer (like John), and his dancing leaves a lot to be desired, but he captures the nervous uncertainty perfectly like Elton John. You have to kill a man to become the man you were born to be, said Motown artist Jason Pennicoc early in his career. Egerton plays a character like someone is always trying to do, but he never feels completely at ease with the person he becomes: It is an intelligent performance indicator, aware of its own construction, which exists on an infinite surface of a shaky ground.
And director Fletcher, who greatly improved the inanimate, castrated biopsy, was able to save many more lives and emotions than the material benefits for Brian Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. As in most jukebox-like musicals, the conversation scenes are just boring places between the songs, and in a playful staging of these scenes Rocketman really shines. Fletcher sometimes strives for the psychedelic visual beauty of Julie Teymour’s film On the Other Side of the Universe – with less imagination and only mixed success – but his best trick is so obvious that it’s quite brilliant: It’s as if he’s literally editing a Broadway show, transferring the decomposing reality of stage blocking to the films. On stage it is easily accepted that a character can dance from one stage and on deck from one song directly into another, and Fletcher achieves the same effect with impeccable, dazzling agility.
For example, an act, Rocket Man, starts with John ODing at a party and falls in the pool: For a while he and his 9-year-old son were lying alone at the bottom of the pool, then he was rescued by synchronized swimmers and taken to the hospital by ambulance to have his stomach pumped. But somewhere around here, almost without our attention, the nurses who saved John’s life went backstage, dressed him in sequins and pushed him onto the stage for a show at Dodger Stadium where he walked happily and hit the crowd with a baseball. At these moments, Rocketman crosses the petty boundaries of his biopolitical history and really takes flight, recording not only the facts of Elton John’s life, but also the stupid sincerity of his music and the spiral madness of his fame fuelled by drugs.
These moments are enough to deserve Rocketman’s attention, even if it is ultimately a superficial form of living extravagance rather than a real quest. Just like a man’s music, it can’t be serious art, but it manages to entertain wildly, to move from time to time and to be careful, resolutely cute.
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