At The Movies - Rocket Burning Out His Fuse Up Here Alone

By Jordan Bosch

In the aftermath of Bohemian Rhapsody, and especially its ridiculous Oscar streak, I wasn’t much looking forward to Rocketman -another pop music cash grab directed by Dexter Fletcher, the non-garbage person who directed parts of the former film. However, this movie about the life and career of Elton John did have a couple advantages; notably an already proven successful collaborative relationship between Fletcher and star Taron Egerton (in 2016’s Eddie the Eagle), and a jukebox musical format that distinguishes itself enough stylistically from run-of-the-mill music biopics. And these things certainly help the end result, which is much more creative and versatile than I otherwise would have expected. The plot itself is as formulaic as ever, but at least it’s coated in a veneer of real effort and spontaneity.

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Within a framing device of the pop star in group therapy, the film follows Reginald Dwight (Taron Egerton) from a neglected upbringing in Harrow to his early work as a pianist and renaming “Elton John”, to his climb to international stardom through his garish style and gifted voice. Along the way, he discovers his homosexuality, and the loneliness this begets becomes a catalyst for his drug addiction, affluent excesses, and emotional instability.

That’s the prism through which this movie presents that oh so familiar subject matter. Elton John doesn’t just succumb to vices out of the music star lifestyle, it’s motivated by deep insecurity. And as much as this is clearly the movies’ choice of narrative more than the reality, it does mostly work. Egerton’s not an ideal Elton John, neither bearing much of a physical nor vocal resemblance to the singer, but he is a good actor who can play the anxiety and frustration of a troubled, closeted man really well, and so the character theme of a quest to be loved does ring honestly, allowing for a real level of understanding and emotional engagement.

What’s also very refreshing is that unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman doesn’t shy away from its homosexuality. It’s not nothing that this is the first major Hollywood movie to feature a gay sex scene, and there’s plenty of male-on-male flirting and homoerotic imagery as well. Elton John’s gayness is a central part of his identity and the film respects that.

And it only makes sense, in capturing the essence of John’s flamboyant style, that Rocketman would apply a similar sensibility to the way it uses his songs. Not confined to merely performances or montages, the delightful musical sequences are richly shot and choreographed in energetic, creative, rhythmic ways as best befitting the mood of each song being spotlighted.

The opening sequence, “The Bitch is Back” put me mind of the opening of Tommy (a film which coincidentally features Elton John in its best sequence), while the tracking shots in a few of the later songs might have echoed the masterful accordion bit from Holy Motors. Each of the numbers is very precise, not chosen merely because they’re popular, but because they thematically tie into a moment. When Elton’s a young artist on the town with a lust for life it’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, when he’s looking for intimacy it’s “Tiny Dancer”, when he’s at his lowest, loneliest point in need of relief it’s “Rocket Man”.

And while the impetus for “Rocket Man” seems to come to him through enacting the opening credits of BoJack Horseman, the sequence itself might be the most exhilarating. It’s certainly the most dreamlike and the most visually striking (though all of the sequences look marvellous), as it gracefully tracks an emotional and narrative renewal in perfect companionship to the song. It’s in these where Fletcher really shows the great talent for riveting musical storytelling he first honed on Sunshine on Leith.

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However much like Across the Universe, these outstanding sequences are the lifeblood of the film, and the regular mediocrity of what’s in between makes it less satisfying on a whole.

There’s the occasional great moment, like a painfully awkward reunion between John and his father (Steven Mackintosh), but a lot of the movie dwells in the patterns of other musical biopics. It falls into a contrivances in inventing ways for John to come up with certain songs or aspects of his persona; and though there is that spin on the reasoning for his downward spiral, it is nonetheless the same downward spiral of excess and abuse we’ve seen in everything from The Doors to Ray to I Saw the Light.

Additionally while the supporting cast includes nice turns from Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin, Gemma Jones, and a loathsome Richard Madden, it also features a lazily obnoxious Stephen Graham and a horribly miscast Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s mother.

Rocketman is not an exceptionally innovative or different kind of specimen of its genre; what it is is a refreshingly good one though. It is daring in execution, passionate, and skilfully produced. It’s technical merits extend to its elaborately recreated costumes, and its musical scenes are utterly terrific, their visual stamina matched by Edgerton’s excellent singing voice.

The film would have been more interesting if it had had the boldness to expand the charismatic expression and fluid reality of these sequences to the whole story, but I honestly should just be happy with the fact this movie took risks at all. That’s certainly what sets it a step above the rest.

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And of course this week’s golden oldy clip from 1972

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