After 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a film that tears every musical biopic apart by showcasing how nearly all musical biopics have the same tropes, plot points, and characters, it is very hard to take any new musical biopic seriously without thinking of John C. Reilly’s fop top and crooked smile. The way that a musical biopic can be successful after Walk Hard is to be different and to be original. Films like Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, Bill Pohland’s Love & Mercy, and F. Gary Gray’s Straight Out of Compton all made musical biopics that were focused more on being character studies of the artists as people rather than showing the rags-to-riches story about the artists with their songs dropped in. However, there are still some that have fallen victim to the Walk Hard’s trap, mainly 2018’s Oscar winning sensation Bohemian Rhapsody, a movie that felt like it didn’t care about Freddie Mercury or Queen at all, but a film that just wanted to play their songs.
Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is the latest Hollywood musical biopic, telling the life story of eccentric musician Elton John. While the film can’t steer clear of all the standard tropes that comes with this genre, this is a movie that is focused on telling Elton John’s story in a bright, loud, colorful, unique way, as only Elton would want it.
The film starts off with Elton (Taron Egerton) rocking a devilish suit and horns, busting through a pair of doors, looking like he’s about ready to go on stage and perform. He isn’t. In complete devil outfit and all, Elton walks into a rehab class, claiming all of things he’s addicted too, like drugs, alcohol, and sex, and all of his issues. He then begins to tell the story of where all his issues came from, to which my eyes nearly rolled to the back of my head, as this was how Bohemian Rhapsody and all the stereotypical musical biopics started, with a sad flashback to the artists childhood. However, Fletcher immediately lets us know that this isn’t going to be that film, as we fade into a saturated view of Elton’s childhood neighborhood and a song and dance number breaks out to one of Elton’s biggest hits, “The Bitch is Back”. This immediately set the tone for the movie and showed us that this might be Elton John’s life, but this isn’t going to be like this other ones.
Rocketman is loaded with moments like this. Moments where Egerton sings one of Elton’s most famous songs not as a performance for a crowd, but to symbolize a moment in his life. Songs like “Tiny Dancer” – my personal favorite song of his – and the titular “Rocketman” are performed to tell us about Elton as a person at that time in his life and not used as just as a, “hey, remember this song?! You like this song!” moment. Coupled with some unique filmmaking choices from Fletcher, these musical numbers really elevate the film to something more than your run-of-the-mill musical biopic.
Rocketman’s structure felt a little bit like a play, where we really only see key moments of Elton’s life rather than get a grand vision of his entire life. Though a bit messy in their transitions, which were more like hyperactive montages to songs, the film covers a lot of Elton’s life. The moments we see of Elton aren’t necessarily the biggest moments of his life, but the moments that tell the story of Elton. This isn’t a movie about how Elton John became Elton John, this is about who Elton John was as a person and at the core of this movie is a movie about a lonely man searching for love and uses alcohol and drugs and sex with random strangers and people to fill the void of continuously getting hurt and being abandoned. Even in a movie where Elton John floats at the piano, this human element grounds the film and makes it actually about Elton as a person and not just the artist.