Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John biopic is an entertaining if imperfect film with a fantastic performance from Taron Egerton
Certain to draw comparisons to worldwide box office smash Bohemian Rhapsody, which won Rami Malek a Best Actor Oscar trophy, Rocketman premiered in Cannes with much anticipation. With lots of music and some quality drama, the film is a crowd-pleaser that is destined to do well at the box office.
Sticking as much as possible to Elton John’s story, with direct supervision from the megastar himself, Rocketman has energy, wit, comedy, music and drama to varying degrees. The film opens with Elton John (Taron Egerton) as he storms into a support group for alcoholics. Once he opens up, we follow his story from childhood to adult life. The ups and downs, success and pain, failed relationships and the genius of his music are all on display and the film never forgets its heart: the pain and desperate need for love that defined Elton John’s personal life and illustrious career.
While Bohemian Rhapsody had brushed off Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality, choosing to show it softly throughout the film without much focus, Rocketman attempts to address the subject perhaps more sincerely, showing us the star at his most vulnerable. With fantastic set pieces and excellent choreography, the film is more expertly directed than Rhapsody but it needed a better narrative balance.
Choosing to feature several Elton John hits, the film is overstuffed with music to the point that it hinders the drama. Despite the well-crafted set pieces, Fletcher’s choice to use songs in lieu of dialogue in several scenes does take away from the film rather than add to it: the picture needed some breathing space that doesn’t utilize music to convey emotion or struggle and the over-reliance on some of the star’s hit songs is clearly in service of the commercial appeal of the film and more of a sing-along choice that will most likely be welcomed by mainstream audiences but subtracts gravitas and depth from an otherwise very well made film.
Taron Egerton delivers a fantastic performance as the troubled star and this is certainly a star-making turn that will be a contributing factor to the film’s likely box office numbers. He may lack the emotional depth and acting chops that Rami Malek has an actor, particularly when showing his inner demons and turmoil, but he truly shines in a challenging role that is both physically and emotionally demanding. His best scenes are those with his father, a haunting figure in Elton John’s life who never gave him the love he needed. Egerton nails the star’s pain and yearning for parental love, but does not have the same meaty opportunities that Malek had to deliver a more wholesome performance. It’s possibly due to the nature of the character itself, as Elton John’s flamboyance dominated much of the star’s public persona.
Lee Hall’s screenplay does a good job at painting an honest, unflinching picture of who Elton John is and the price of fame, and its strongest element is in its framing device: from the first shot, it shows us an agonizing, fractured star who admits his shortcomings. The script just needed more dialogue and less songs in crucial segments that needed reflection rather than exposition and sing-along.
Rocketman is commercial cinema at its best, and perhaps that’s enough for a studio picture that needs to charm and entertain – and so it does. With less reliance on music that replaces dialogue as a narrative device, it could have soared. Nevertheless, it is an engaging, entertaining and memorable film that never attempts to be shallow or slight.