‘Rocketman’ can’t break through

Images courtesy Paramount Pictures.

3/10 Hollywood biopics have grown more and more uniform as they’ve grown more lucrative over the years. That goes doubly for musician biopics, all of which seem to follow the same plot regardless of who they’re about and none of which seem to incorporate the artist’s music in any meaningful way.

Rocketman took off to fix all that. They weren’t going to take the work of Elton John and just play it over the same boring “Spinal Tap, but serious” rockstar movie you’ve seen a dozen times, they were going to make it big and real, incorporating it into a uniquely cinematic genre where they had room to make it as imaginative and flamboyant as John himself.

And yeah, Rocketman delivers on all that, I guess. It does. Technically, it does. It’s just not very good.

In 1990, Elton John (Taron Edgerton) bursts into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting wearing a tangerine devil costume and declares that he is addicted to alcohol, cocaine, sex and shopping and is also bulimic. The group leader immediately asks him about his childhood so that the film can be otherwise boring and linear, and John bursts into song, chronicling his upbringing by neglectful and disapproving parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), the start of his career with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and his rise to fame with manager and abusive boyfriend John Reid (Richard Madden).

In Rocketman, we’ve finally got something that at least wants to be everything it can be. It’s got the right idea about what it should be going for narratively, tonally and artistically. The problem is in the execution. The movie is half biopic, half musical, half an addiction and abuse recovery story and half a drug-fueled psychedelic romper, but never fully commits to any of these things.

As much as they vitally need to exist in a movie about Elton John, the musical numbers are a key problem. The sound mixing is bad. Vocals and instruments overwhelm each other when they should be complementary. In many cases, the choreography doesn’t match the flow of the song, so everyone seems to be dancing to a tune other than the one viewers are listening to.

There’s also a consistent lighting problem that runs throughout the movie. In several scenes, everything is backlit. The contrast isn’t high enough to turn these scenes into noir-style silhouette skits, and that wouldn’t fit the tone anyway – visually, Rocketman should be about bright colors energizing the scene.

The “Saturday” number is probably the biggest culmination of these issues. What should be an impressive one-shot that covers the entire song and John’s aging into a young man is instead made murky and difficult to follow by poor lighting choices and too many wild camera tricks that come too fast.

There’s also a serious loss of momentum after the keynote “Rocketman” sequence, which covers John’s second suicide attempt and his transition, against his best interests and largely without his participation, to the Dodger’s Stadium concert just a couple of days later. Though John’s heart keeps beating, the movie’s completely stops. The next 40 minutes or so of a 121 minute movie are repeated, individualized sequences of him falling out with Reid, his mother and Taupin and eventually seeking help, and you can almost physically feel the movie’s emotional climax and most compelling scene slipping further and further into the past.

I don’t hate Edgerton’s singing, or his performance, which I usually do. Rocketman is a story about John’s uncertainty about his sexuality and his identity, as well as the generalized uncertainty that comes with abusive relationships, which drive his drug-fueled collapse in the film. Edgerton does a great job constantly toeing the line between ultimate rockstar bravado and sheepishness.

The old trope to make everyone immediately lose patience with your musician biopic is to open on a famous performance and frame the movie as a flashback. Rocketman changes this up a tiny bit, opening with John walking out of a performance and admitting his addition problems. It’s another way the movie isn’t appreciably different from the tropes it’s trying to reject.

Rocketman is inexorably tied to last November’s Bohemian Rhapsody for at least a dozen reasons, most interestingly because they share a director – after Bryan Singer fucked off the set of Bohemian Rhapsody with two weeks left of shooting, Dexter Fletcher replaced him, and was subsequently hired to direct Rocketman. Additionally, Rocketman’s entire advertising and media campaign can be read as a response to Bohemian Rhapsody, or at least a deliberate attempt to create contrast – Rhapsody is the most recent and most successful posterchild for the kind of vapid biopic that Rocketman specifically wants to not be. Edgerton and Fletcher also took explicit swipes at the film by emphasizing that Edgerton actually performed John’s songs while Rhapsody star Remi Malek’s vocals were covered, and the fact that the director actually finished production.

This was in and of itself a bold choice. While Bohemian Rhapsody was eviscerated critically and is quickly becoming more of a punching bag as time passes, its commercial and awards season success can’t be denied. The problem is that as much as Rocketman tries to set itself apart, there isn’t much separating the movies. Rocketman swaps Rhapsody’s embarrassing editing problems for lighting problems that aren’t quite as noticeable, but are still a hinderance, and for musical numbers that aren’t that great anyway.

Bohemian Rhapsody also had a major revisionist history problem because surviving Queen bandmates Roger Taylor and Brian May were trying to drag Mercury to make themselves look better, and Rocketman kind of repeats that too by portraying John’s parents as absent and unsupportive of his career or sexuality. This is consistent with John’s descriptions of his parents, but something that is disputed by extended family and some facts. It’s a complicated situation, but the movie is grounded in John’s truth, which it should be, even if that truth seems to be highly questionable here. The core problem remains, though – if you can’t find the conflict in an existing story and feel more needs to be injected, you shouldn’t be telling that story.

While Rocketman doesn’t really have the opportunity to flub anything as hard as Bohemian Rhapsody flubbed the AIDS Crisis, which is integral to the story of Freddy Mercury whether or not anyone wants it to be, it does repeat the same trope of bad things happening in the musicians’ lives once they start dating men. That’s but essentially unavoidable – both Reid and Paul Prenter were famously horrible to their superstar lovers – but it’s extremely unfortunate that both of these movies about eminent queer icons run headfirst into one of the most annoying homosexist tropes.

So while Rocketman has a lot of the right ideas, it just doesn’t get all the way to where it’s going.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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