By Derek May:
It was only a matter of time before it happened. Elton John is near-unanimously hailed across music genre lines as one of the greatest, most influential musicians of his lifetime, and with good reason. His music is personal and yet universal, epic and yet melodic. Though the music and the man are inextricably linked, one without the other only gives us half the story. And thus it’s both obvious and a stroke of genius to present Elton John’s quintessential biopic as a musical fantasy, weaving together a standard dramatic narrative with ethereal, dreamlike song and dance sequences. And somehow . . . it all works.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: with the massive critical and commercial success of last year’s Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, comparisons between that work and this are all but unavoidable. Both showcase a gay musical icon of the 70s and 80s who struggled with the personal demons of sex, drugs, alcohol, and toxic managerial lovers who sent them astray. Behind the camera, there are even more connections, with Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher having finished the work on Rhapsody after Brian Singer was fired, and the character of producer John Reid even appears in both films (played by Game of Thrones alumi Aidan Gillen in Rhapsody and Richard Madden in Rocketman). But despite all these, the two films are wildly and markedly different in presentation, tone, and theme, and as such should be judged on their own merits.
Good, now that that’s settled, Rocketman is every bit the reflection of its subject. Flamboyant, excessive, beautiful . . . and tragically human. The film chronicles Elton (born Reggie Dwight) from his earliest years through his dalliances with drugs, sex, suicide, and depression until the early 80s when he is finally able to receive the catharsis needed to overcome these issues and sober up. The theme of the film is therefore one of personal growth and self-acceptance, as well as learning to be open to the love you deserve. But the journey is long and difficult, fraught with misturns and dead ends. But it’s also extraordinarily relatable, as it’s a universally human expedition that we all experience in some form or another. And that’s really the brilliance of the film, to somehow balance the carnival-level pageantry with the all-too-human personal and emotional trials.
Fletcher and writer Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, Victoria & Abdul) understand that the spectacle and the man are one, and must work in a kind of harmony rather than in opposition, or worse, gratuitously. Fletcher—who I first noticed as an actor back in 1998’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels—shows a masterful command of visual storytelling by knowing when to push the dreamlike extravaganza and when to allow the drama to breathe unencumbered. Several moments are expressed without hardly a word spoken, and yet the plot and emotion come through with crystal clarity. The songs aren’t just for reference, but thematic expressions of what is happening at the given moment. Thus, they aren’t always in chronological order, but where they have the most relevance.