Madman Across the Water
2019 / UK, USA / 121 min. / Dir. by Dexter Fletcher / Opens in wide release on May 31, 2019by:
Early in Rocketman, musical prodigy Reginald Kenneth Dwight (Matthew Illesley) – who will eventually assume the stage name Elton John as an adult (Taron Egerton) – sits on his bed late at night, feverishly studying sheet music. He raises a hand to conduct his imaginary orchestra, and the film’s eponymous song – already evoked by a glitzy title sequence – slowly builds on the film’s soundtrack. The camera pans from the young maestro’s gesticulating hands to a manifestation of a full orchestra floating in a twinkly night sky before him. It’s an moment of cinematic fantasy that might have made even Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger envious.
The sequence, even more so than an earlier dancing-in-the-streets number in which Reginald leads his family and London suburb neighbors through “The Bitch Is Back,” announces that Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John biopic is far more adventurous than most of the by-the-numbers rock-star narratives that have preceded it. Specifically, Rocketman will inevitably be compared to last year’s Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, not only because that global box-office smash (and Oscar winner, ugh) is so fresh in viewers’ memories, but also because Rhapsody’s sole credited director, Bryan Singer, was replaced by Fletcher himself late in production. Fletcher's latest bests Rhapsody in nearly every possible detail, elevated beyond its precursors by its resolve to become a full-on old-school musical fantasia.
Granted, this Elton John jukebox musical doesn’t reach the sort of bold and experimental heights attained by Todd Haynes’ biopic trilogy: Barbie-doll-starring experiment Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987); glam-rock identity-investigation Velvet Goldmine (1998); and many-faces-of-Bob Dylan essay film I’m Not There (2007). Rocketman still slavishly hews to the familiar story turns of lesser films like Elvis (1979), Walk the Line (2005), and Rhapsody, charting the rise-fall-redemption arc of its subject. What’s between Fletcher’s show-stopping numbers is simply above-average Hollywood filmmaking.
Rocketman is structured as a series of flashbacks told from the rehab facility that John enters – bursting through its doors wearing a bombastically ornate phoenix-rising costume – when he is at the peak of his fame and a nadir in his personal life. The film uses the pop star’s biggest hits to tell his story, but it largely forgoes slogging through John’s catalog to depict the actual creation of these tracks. Instead, the feature employs the songs thematically, playing fast and loose with the chronology of the artist’s discography. (“Your Song” is the sole exception in getting the behind-the-scenes treatment, but given its still-supreme status and its use here as an ode to platonic love, that can be forgiven.)
Although Dexter’s nimble and propulsive direction means each musical interlude is suffused with a cinematic glee, mileage varies on the thematic interpolation of the music into the narrative of Rocketman. The verses of “I Want Love,” a minor 2001 comeback for Elton John, are traded off between the Dwight family members in an early Terence Davies-esque sequence that lays the groundwork for the film’s pat armchair psychology. The raucous “Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting” rollicks through Reginald’s sexual and musical coming-of-age, alternating between his early local pub shows and a hazy nocturnal carnival. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is Bernie Taupin’s (Jamie Bell) send-off to his songwriting partner after Elton’s narcissistic downward spiral into drug addiction and self-importance. Even more on the nose is the appearance of “I’m Still Standing,” and anyone familiar with the triumphant comeback song can discern its placement within this traditional narrative.
However, this conceit reveals that Rocketman at least understands the subversive essence of pop music in conveying messages through presentational code, whereas Bohemian Rhapsody just lazily trotted out the origin stories of Queen singles as if the actors were doing a live reading of the band’s Wikipedia page. Further complicating these ideas is that this dissemination of meaning through code is of great importance to the lives of queer people – a group to which both Elton John and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury belong – especially within cultural climates that suppress queer identities. Rhapsody made the fatal mistake of equating Mercury’s sexuality with his downfall – dying-damsel moment of coughing blood into a handkerchief to signal his AIDS diagnosis and all – and had nothing on its mind about this intersection of performance, pop-music forms, and identity. In Fletcher’s film, a mentor succinctly elucidates the paradox of queer identity and pop performance to Elton John before his career takes off in earnest: “You have to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”
In this regard (and many others), the director seems to address complaints lobbed against the previous film with which he is tenuously associated – most conspicuously the accusation that Rhapsody obscured Mercury’s sexuality to make that film more palatable for hetero audiences. Granted, the sole sex scene between John and his self-serving manager-cum-lover, John Reid (Richard Madden), pulls a Call Me by Your Name (2017) by panning up to billowing curtains at the peak of the couple’s sexual intimacy. However, Rocketman does not repeat Rhapsody’s sins. In fact, Fletcher’s latest could rightfully enter the all-too-small pantheon of populist films about the queer concerns of coming out, unrequited love, gender performance, and public personas (albeit through the lens of a white cisgender man).
None of this would come with such startling clarity if it weren’t for the supremely fine-tuned performance of Egerton. He lends credibility to the character of Elton John not by impersonation but by creating a fully formed human being who evolves from pit-in-the-stomach anxiety to devil-may-care narcissism. The actor, best known for leading the Kingsmen action films, manages to induce great empathy in the audience, despite the distance afforded by being one of the great rock stars of the 20th century. Doubtlessly, some critics will complain that the actor’s singing voice doesn’t quite sound like John’s, but that’s to the creative team and Egerton’s credit: Verisimilitude isn’t necessary when more ecstatic truths are deployed.
Some of those truths may be called into question, however. Even with the character of Elton John as the unreliable narrator of his own story, Elton John the executive producer is still somewhere behind the camera calling some shots. There’s nothing outrageous about a musician playing around in the sandbox of his own biography and discography, molding the narrative into whatever shape he likes. On the contrary, Rocketman is relatively forthright about John’s shortcomings as a human being. However, the musician’s egocentrism occasionally intrudes on the film’s credibility, in both its factual and fantasy modes. During the musician’s debut performance across the pond in a popular Los Angeles nightclub, the audience and the performer levitate in ecstasy. Later, some self-aggrandizing pre-end-credits title cards announce the (admittedly) important charity work John has done in the years since the film proper’s narrative ends. Although these are small gestures – and fair enough in sketching John as a human who can syncretize disparate identities into a whole – their overbearing weight is enough to keep filmgoers’ feet firmly planted on the ground.