The second big rock and roll biopic of the last two years took the form of Rocketman, the biopic of legendary British artist: Elton John. Spanning from his childhood to his comeback out of a drug abuse rehabilitation centre, Rocketman tells the story of Elton’s rise into the music industry, his struggles with his family, his history with drugs and drink, and his process of overcoming deeply troubling personal issues in order to cement himself as a legendary performer and one of the most successful artist of all time. The film stars Taron Egerton as Elton John, as well as Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Jamie Bell among others. The film, in which Egerton sings every song as Elton, has been received well across the board from critics and fans alike.
Going into this film, I was very conscious of trying to avoid comparing it to Bohemian Rhapsody in my head. The two films are fundamentally so similar, not just in the fact that they both tell the stories of two absolute music legends, but equal part in terms of the content of those stories. I also went into the film not especially familiar with Elton John’s music. Of course I’d heard Tiny Dancer and Your Song, but they’d rarely been the centre of my attention. Can You Feel the Love Tonight was the only song whose lyrics I knew, which I bring up to highlight the most key difference between the way I received this film and Bohemian Rhapsody: Freddy Mercury’s story was one I knew fairly well; Elton John was just a well known name to me. As a result, Rocketman was a sort of educational experience for me. Not only did I learn about Elton’s journey, with which I was completely unacquainted until now, but I was given an in in terms of his music. The man has some wonderful music, the lyrics for which, and this was something I learned through the film, weren’t written by him.
The film, all in all, was decent. It’s got an interesting narrative style: the story is told as a reflection in the situation of a rehab facility, which ended up working for me but teetered very close to the edge of coming across convoluted at times. The film is a lot more of a musical musical than I was expecting, which makes for some really kind of ridiculous moments but I chalk that down to the genre. Where the inconsistencies come from, however, doesn’t really change the fact that it makes for a slightly strange watch at times, as well as taking a little away from the potency of the narrative. Taron Egerton is phenomenal, truly, both in terms of his depiction of Elton as well as in terms of his renditions of Elton’s music. I saw Egerton in an interview talking about what Elton John has meant to him in his life and describing his love for the man. Perhaps it is only armed with that information that it was very visible to me that Egerton was playing a man he idolized, and he absolutely did not waste his chance, delivering a spectacular performance. He doesn’t steal the show, however, with a full ensemble cast producing wonderful performances one after another. Richard Madden is strong as John Reed, the textbook music-agent-who-screws-the-guy-over man in the story, and Bernie Taupin, possibly my favorite character, is portrayed with incredible poise by Jamie Bell. Dynamics and relationships are cultivated well overall, and, while a strong honorable mention must be given to Bernie and Elton’s relationship, the heaviest emotional payoff is most certainly the dynamic between Elton and his parents. Excellently cast and performed, Elton’s parents are the underrated carriers of a lot of the baggage of the film through the main emotional turmoil of the film.
And that’s what’s interesting about the film to me. The story is all about a man’s desperate search for genuine love. The idea is intimated throughout the film as a direct motif often enough, and rejection by his father, the insincerity of his mother, and the betrayal of his lover leave him dependent on drugs and alcohol. There’s a line in the film, which of course I can only hope to paraphrase, “Real love is hard to come by, so we learn to do without.” The depiction of Elton’s drug abuse and emotional struggles are an aspect where the film takes a lot of risks, commendably so considering its subject is alive and kicking. Obviously it’s difficult to say how much sugar-coating of the facts occurs in this kind of film, as is allegedly the case with Bohemian Rhapsody, but it has been well publicized that Elton John’s was reasonably detached from the writing and conception process. If that’s true, it would make a certain amount of sense; the film isn’t shy about delving deep into the depths to which Elton fell in his life. The result of that, aside from adding up to an emotionally compelling portrayal, makes his eventual return to full, sober form is as fulfilling a payoff as it could’ve been.
All in all, it’s a good film, with some inconsistencies and odd choices keeping it from being a great film. There is one other goal the film achieves, however, in a fashion that I think deserves special mention. Rocketman is a very openly, obviously, and unapologetically gay film. This is good on its own, open gayness on screen is a massive step in the right direction in terms of equal portrayal on screen. One thing I was worried about, however, was the threat of a tokenistic plastering of homosexuality on screen, done for the purpose of a self-righteous bid of pro LGBTQ+ showing, drowning out the main idea of the film which is Elton’s story. The film, however, falls into no such trap, dealing miraculously and masterfully with the subject. Elton John’s homosexuality is a topic that is raised and dispensed with in a breath, after which it is a constant feature without being pointedly so, and that to me is exceptional. In the end, normalisation and acceptance is progress, and the way this film manages to champion homosexuality without that championship being the focus is, in my opinion, a triumph in representation of LGBTQ+ on the big screen.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 68/100 Aryamaan’s score –