The comparisons between the musical biopics Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) are inevitable, so let's go ahead and get them out of the way. First, they are both big-studio projects about iconic British gay rock stars-Elton John and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, respectively-who had astronomical rises to stardom amid the glitz, glamor, and hedonisms of the early '70s trans-Atlantic rock scene. Both films follow traditional rise-and-fall-and-rise-again trajectories as their outsider, misunderstood protagonists, who emerge from humble working-class backgrounds, become major stars and then fall prey to sex, drugs, and narcissism, not to mention predatory managers with whom they fall in love only to be used and abused. And both films were directed by Dexter Fletcher-sort of. While he is the credited director of Rocketman, his name is nowhere to be found on Bohemian Rhapsody even though it is widely known he stepped in for Bryan Singer, the credited director.
Now, for the differences, and they are significant and lie at the heart of why Rocketman is a substantially better film. While Bohemian Rhapsody was an overly conventional biopic, following Mercury's life and rooting the narrative in the creation of each of Queen's hit songs, which created a repetitive rhythm that quickly grew tiresome, Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott, War Horse) take Rocketman in a much different direction. While it still adheres primarily to a chronological recounting of Elton John's life from his childhood through the early 1990s, it makes the bold move of telling much of his life story through musical numbers that blur reality and fantasy. We get all the "greatest hits" moments of Elton's (born Reggie Dwight) life, from his childhood with a chilly, distant father (Steven Mackintosh) and a self-obsessed mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), to his friendship/brotherhood with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his ill-fated relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden), a suave but brashly amoral producer/manager with whom Elton becomes romantically and professionally involved, only to have his heart crushed. The film tells the familiar tale of stardom as a mask to hide pain, which is all the more obvious in Elton John's career given his penchant for wild stage costumes, but it works because Taron Egerton, who previously starred in Fletcher's Eddie the Eagle (2015) as another shy misfit who proves his doubters wrong, sells the pain behind the glitz and the glory.
Interestingly, the film begins with Elton at his lowest, which is the opposite of Bohemian Rhapsody, which opens with Freddie Mercury's triumphant march onto the stage at 1985's Live Aid concert, where he and Queen delivered one of their truly immortal performances. Rocketman begins in what appears to be similar fashion, with Elton striding dramatically down a hallway in slow motion, wearing one of his most outlandish costumes (an orange and gold demon suit, complete with horns and massive wings), only to walk into a support group, where he sits down and immediately confesses to being an alcoholic, a cocaine addict, a sex addict, a shopping addict, and a bulimic. That support group, a fantasy version of the real rehab that Elton used to dry out in the early 1990s, becomes the film's structuring device, with Elton narrating his life story to a group of mostly silent fellow addicts.
It is at this point that we get the first taste of Rocketman's conceptual daring, as we are introduced to Elton's five-year-old self (Matthew Illesley) in his Pinner, Middlesex neighborhood leading a searing rendition of "The Bitch Is Back." We will get similar musical sequences throughout the film, with "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" dramatizing Elton's late teenage self (Kit Connor) navigating the rough-and-tumble world of blue-collar pubs as a rising piano player and the titular "Rocketman" scoring a drug overdose and suicide attempt. The musical sequences, which often turn into fully choreographed fantasies that nonetheless convey the essence of Elton's life at that point (the fact that the lyrics don't always fit is irrelevant since it's the feeling of the song that matters, not the literal words), are some of the film's highpoints, and they are at the heart of Rocketman's effectiveness. All biopics are fantasies of one kind or another; Rocketman has the daring to wear it on its cinematic sleeve.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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