A good storyteller doesn’t neglect the details, but a great storyteller can assemble a tale that’s universally relatable. So is the failure of “Rocketman,” an Elton John biopic musical that feels a little too personal. The film obviously is intended as an inspirational celebration of John’s life, but it seems like it was made to intimately speak to the man himself, not to a wider audience.
Cleverly told through the legend’s eyes at a group therapy session, this musical fantasy takes audiences through Elton’s (Taron Egerton) life story, starting when he was a shy young boy named Reginald Dwight who had a prodigious ear for music and culminating in his well-earned musical icon status. Director Dexter Fletcher jumps through time using beloved hit songs as we see a teenage Reggie playing backup at a local pub, his decision to change his name and persona, the alignment of the universe when he teams up with eventual longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and his eventual rise to record-breaking superstardom. A lot of ground is covered in two hours, but the film feels lethargic in getting to the real meat of the story.
As a result, film feels like a less insightful episode of “Behind the Music.” It neglects the real compelling part of Elton’s life narrative: his relationship with Taupin. The scattered scenes featuring the two are among the only things that make the film tick. I came away from the movie wanting to research more about their partnership because the focus here is on all the less interesting aspects of John’s life. The film ignores its own story, in a way.
There are some goose bump inducing moments for music fans, including the happenstance meeting where a record company suit randomly hands Elton a folder full of lyrics while challenging him to “set these to music, let’s see what you’ve got” (those lyrics turned out to be written by Taupin, which is a 100% true story). Sadly, these flashes of nostalgia are too few and far between. Fletcher focuses on the decades of depression and drug-induced parties, suicide attempts, and teary-eyed apologies that feel designed to give Egerton his Oscar nomination reel. (He is, by the way, fantastic in the role and proves his acting chops tenfold).
Most of the film falls into a by-the-numbers, rise-and-fall trajectory of self discovery of a very lonely, down in the dumps, substance abusing man who just happens to be one of the world’s greatest musical talents. We are there as Elton boasts that he’s ingested “every drug that exists,” has developed bulimia, is a shopping addict, a sex addict, and drinks entire bottles of vodka in one fell swoop at the breakfast table. It’s a tedious and predictable formula that captures the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows, a tiresome reminder that being a mega rich, mega successful, super talented musician must really, really suck. This led me to more frustrated eye rolling than necessary. The film’s fantasy elements help, but the disappointing execution lacks the flamboyance that would better suit Elton’s life story.
The costumes are okay (almost all replicas of his lavish wardrobe over the years), but the big musical numbers mostly fizzle. It’s not the fault of Egerton, who is a more than serviceable singer and decent enough dancer, but it’s the hackneyed eye of the director and editor. The bold ideas behind numbers like “Rocketman,” a memorable scene that’s partially filmed underwater and features Elton singing a duet with a younger version of himself after a suicide attempt, could be chilling. Instead, most suffer from choppy choreography and poor camerawork. The movie doesn’t need to be highly stylized or slick or smooth to be more appealing, but it could do without lousy musical theater pieces like the ill-advised “Tiny Dancer” scene (one of the worst in the movie).
With a piano man as world-renowned and brilliant as Elton John, the songs should really speak for themselves in a biopic about his life. They don’t. The tunes sometimes take center stage, but the musical arrangements have been changed for the worse. It’s an unforgivable sin, at least to music aficionados, to mess with perfection. Perhaps this is a complaint that stems from being a big fan, but this is one film soundtrack I never care to hear again.
“Rocketman” walks a very thin line between “fresh” and “rotten” for me, but I am giving it a very mild recommendation for those who are fans of Elton John. But please: lower your expectations.