The traditional musical is the oldest film genre and it still relies on magical fantasy for suspending audience disbelief. This allows characters to spontaneously break into song or dance, unlike musical bio-pics such as Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) that realistically integrate the music into their narrative flow. The epic-scaled Rocketman (2019) is a nostalgic reversion to the traditional musical form; knowing this beforehand helps to make sense of what is a swirling kaleidoscope of emotion and music.
Where bio-pics tend to look at a life story, the musical Rocketman is a selective biography that traces a musical icon’s ascent to the starry heavens during the 70s. The opening minutes are bold, brash, and fantastical: Elton John (Taron Egerton) is resplendent in high-arch feathered sequins, storming toward camera after bailing out of a packed concert hall. He walks across a city and straight into an alcoholic rehab group, plonks into a chair and, staring through trademark crazy glasses, proceeds to unravel his journey as a lonely youth prodigy who became a substance abusing mega-star.
What follows is a series of loosely connected vignettes that use musical lyrics as narrative entry-points to explain his complex vulnerabilities. The young Reginald Dwight was raised by emotionally abusive parents who were incapable of loving him, a burden that intensified his desire to be whatever it took to please others. Encouraged by his grandmother, his musical talent grew as a self-defensive response to what he experienced as an uncaring world. The mature Elton John progressed to singing odes of pain, awe, and confused sexual identity, mostly delivered with flamboyance and electric energy. Much of it comes from an unhappy place and this makes the film more revelationery than celebratory.
Taron Egerton channels the icon with mesmerising brilliance; it is a performance made more astonishing by singing with authenticity a dozen songs from Elton John’s enormous repertoire. The cinematography is as exuberant as the performances; many scenes verge on musical artworks as the human dynamo appears disconnected from the earth’s gravity. The sets and costumes are fabulous, and the pace of the story is captivating.
What you take away from Rocketman depends on what you bring in terms of fan status and personal interest. Some will see it as a story of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll; others a musical hero’s journey to mega-celebrity. Others may reflect on why there are so many music-inspired films in current cinema. The rise of anti-progressive forces in today’s frenetic and fractured world means new generations lack heroes; the revival of heroic musicians might go some way to filling this gap.
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Stars: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden