It is impossible to talk about Rocketman, the Elton John biopic, without mentioning its sibling, Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic. Both are about rock icons who came up in the 1970s, whose combination of glam, rock, and pop led to total chart dominance. Both feature iconic vocalists with a library of hit songs; both films are directed, at least in part, by Dexter Fletcher, who took control of Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired. And both films rely heavily on music, though here is where they begin to diverge, for Bohemian Rhapsody uses Queen’s music as a crutch to help viewers through the weak story portions of the film, and Rocketman uses music to actually tell Elton John’s story. Yes, that’s right, Rocketman is a straight-up, Broadway-ready MUSICAL. I expected some musical elements in the film, based off the trailers, but Rocketman is not just using “musical elements”. It IS a musical. I let out a quiet “oh nooooo” as this realization sank in, because musicals are not my bag, but I do realize Rocketman is going to work for a whole lot of people.
And a musical is a great way to tell Sir Elton’s life story. His music covers so many styles and genres, each song-and-dance number has its own flavor, including a couple stand-out numbers that riff on the cinematic work of Jerome Robbins and Tommy Tune. There are also fantasy elements in Rocketman, which work well with Elton John’s larger-than-life presence, and quite frankly, the film probably could have done more with that. But it does feel at times like Rocketman is ready-made for the stage, and the film didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary it would be impossible for the inevitable Broadway adaptation to recreate. Honestly, that kind of self-fulfilling synergy irks more than the whole “it’s a musical” thing.
Rocketman also differs from Bohemian Rhapsody in the way it treats its principle subject. For one thing, Rocketman doesn’t hate Elton John. There is none of Bohemian Rhapsody’s ugly shaming of sexuality or punishing Sir Elton for being himself. If anything, Rocketman connects a previous era’s repression and denial with Sir Elton’s battle with addiction and self-loathing. There is an idea, stated by Elton’s mother (a deliciously nasty Bryce Dallas Howard), that Elton will never be “loved properly”, and Rocketman is about how that idea spins through Elton’s life, leading him into toxic relationships, self-denial, and substance abuse.
Not all of Elton’s relationships are toxic, though. Rocketman vibes with a special energy when the story is focused on Elton’s relationship with his long-time songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Taron Egerton is the type of actor who is at his best when bouncing off someone else, and he and Bell are keyed in as Elton and Bernie. Egerton can hold the screen on his own, and he does a credible job as Sir Elton—if Rami Malek can win an Oscar for wearing giant teeth, Egerton ought to at least be in the running for his convincingly balding head—but there is no denying the tangible uptick in energy whenever he has a screen partner, whether it’s Bell or Richard Madden as Elton’s vile partner and manager, John Reid.
What really makes Rocketman work is how joyful it is. The film does not hide the bad things Sir Elton went through, especially as he learns to value himself outside of how others see him, but through it all are strong notes of joy that makes this a very fun film. The climax of the film is genuinely triumphant – we’ve rooted for Elton so hard throughout that it is a visceral thrill to see him begin writing music again, post-sobriety, and post-script photos of Sir Elton with his family were met with enthusiastic cheers. We KNOW Elton John is still alive and well, and yet Rocketman effectively makes us invest in whether or not “Elton” is going to be okay. A lot of that stems from the theme of the film, and seeing how damaging denial and rejection are, and the knowledge that LGBTQ rights are still under threat. Here is an entire movie about how much damage denial can do, and it does make clear that it is a minor miracle Sir Elton survived, that he got lucky and made the most of his second chance—that’s the spirit that feeds Rocketman: that defiant survival in the face of emotional starvation, even cruelty. Rocketman is a joyful celebration of survival and queer positivity. This is the biopic of a queer rock icon we deserve. Even if it is a musical.
Attached - Taron Egerton at a Rocketman screening in San Francisco the other day.