Movie Review: Rocketman (2019)

“For as long as I can remember I’ve hated myself” ~ Rocketman.

American culture says encouraging things to abuse survivors. “It wasn’t your fault.” “You deserve love.” “You can be healthy and successful.” These things come with conditions. “You just have to love yourself.” “Just keep putting in the work and you’ll get there.” But where is there? What happens if you achieve record breaking, worldwide success and find you still hate yourself? Well you might become like Elton John.

Rocketman opens with Elton visiting group therapy. He’s there to discuss his addictions and the abuse he received from his cold parents and violent lover. The framing device lets him flash back through his tropey career. The screenplay has no interest in the songwriting process. You’re expected to already know that “Your Song” and “Rocketman” left a bigger cultural footprint than “Amoreena” and “Honky Cat.” We’re here for therapy.

The songs are used to express Elton’s inner thoughts. Less Bohemian Rhapsody and more The Boy from Oz. There is also little Across the Universe surrealism thrown in to the staging of the bigger numbers. I wish they’d pushed the weirdness further. For every creative musical number there are two of Elton simply walking through a crowd.

Taron Egerton is a lovable performer with a fine singing voice. He’s hindered by an overstuffed screenplay that forces him to rush through key moments and wild personality shifts. All while wearing fabulous costumes. Happily he nails the therapy monologues which allow him to process his inner turmoil. They left me an emotional wreck even as I saw the strings being pulled.

Rocketman Bernie and Elton
Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin and Taron Egerton as Elton John

Elton gets the songs and the growth. The supporting characters are left with one personality trait apiece. Mean parents, uptight teacher, vulgar publisher and so on. Richard Madden smolders and snarls as the malevolent lover/manager John Reid. He’s a scarier version of the role Allen Leech played in Bohemian Rhapsody. Jamie Bell’s saintly Bernie Taupin plays Jiminy Cricket, popping up to give advice which Elton ignores. The angel to Reid’s devil. His polite refusal of Elton’s affections adds some layers to their dynamic.

LGB+ artist biopics are having a moment and a Boy George film is on its way. Bohemian Rhapsody had the most success and Boy Erased the most pathos but Rocketman is the most fun. It may prove too gay for international markets but if two men kissing doesn’t frighten you then check it out. The scenes of domestic abuse and self-harm can be triggering but there’s always another song lined up to bop along to.

Biopic Bingo

Elton and Elton
Elton John and Taron Egerton at the Cannes Festival in 2019.

Get out your bingo cards. Rocketman hits the standard artist biopic tropes including:

Spoilers
  • Unhappy dinners with disapproving parents.
  • A creative partnership established in one conversation.
  • The “I can see your bright future” conversation.
  • The first hit song written in minutes.
  • A pep talk before the career defining performance.
  • The rejection of loving friends after success is achieved.
  • A disastrous drug addled performance.
  • Awkward age makeup.
  • A triumphant come back song.
  • Photos and vocals from the real artist over the credits.
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And some tropes specific to GBQ+ stories including:

Spoilers
  • Failed attempts at heterosexuality.
  • Miserable visits to ominous gay clubs.
  • Teary coming out scenes.
  • An unrequited crush on a straight man.
  • An abusive relationship with a predatory gay man.
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Unlike some biopics we do see same sex affection. It’s much tamer than the marketing campaign would have you believe (kisses, some grinding and a flash of hip), though it drew titters and gasps from the straight boomers in my audience.

What are your thoughts on Rocketman? On musical biopics in general? Has any biopic shown the mundane trial-and-error process of creating a work of art? For more reviews of LGBT+ media click here.