For a film with plenty of lines of cocaine being snorted, drinks being tossed back, and pills being swallowed, Rocketman doesn’t have quite the energy you’d expect. After all, it’s an Elton John biopic; the set pieces should be nothing but high camp and faggotry. Sadly, the film lacks the panache and imagination of, say, Ken Russell (who directed John in more than one music video and a scene in his musical feature Tommy) or Julie Taymor (whose Across the Universe pulls marvelous sequences out of existing tunes). While Dexter Fletcher, best known for salvaging Bohemian Rhapsody (ha!) after Bryan Singer’s dismissal, attempts spectacle in his set pieces, he lacks the charm and technical prowess to nail them successfully.
Writer Lee Hall grounds Rocketman in an AA meeting that never feels real, flashing back from this sequence to numerous segments of the artist’s life in mostly chronological order. Hall has little to no interest for in the music’s chronology, pulling songs from any which point in John’s career and muddling up history as long as the song barely registers emotional accuracy (the worst example being when the film implies “I’m Still Standing” was written in the late 80s when it was a hit single in 1983). This would be fine enough if chronology was entirely ignored and unaddressed, aiming for fantasy above all else, but Fletcher can’t have his cake and eat it too, though he certainly tries.
The first half of the film chronicles John’s rise to stardom, the second covering his descent into drugs, sex, and depression. What we’re presented is, for the most part, true: John did struggle with his sexuality, with drugs and alcohol, and with wanting to kill himself. He did have a relationship of sorts with manager John Reid (Richard Madden). He has collaborated with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) since 1967 and shows no signs of stopping. He was married to Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker). And his first American concert was at the Troubadour. There are stupid nods to other parts of his life throughout his younger years (like a hasty performance of “Candle in the Wind” as a young adult, ages before he would record the famous song), but it’s the way they frame these events that creates a questionable portrait of a man.
Rocketman‘s attempts to frame John as a ball of anxiety feel half-hearted (“he was always shy” characters feel the need to remind us constantly), and while the concept of excessive flamboyance as a cover for anxiety and depression is interesting, it doesn’t quite go anywhere. Cutting back to an AA meeting where John tells his story makes no sense, only framing plot points and emotional beats that don’t need to be explained without offering any real introspection. Instead we get a barrage of scenes dealing with John’s issues with both his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his father (Steven Mackintosh). The former is framed as an absolute monster, dismissive of his existence unless it benefits her financially, and the latter a distant, cold man who would rather raise a new family than interact with him.
The film occasionally attempts to approach the subject of “gay shame,” but by framing his relationships with women as either a punchline (dating his landlady and dumping her because he’s gay) or a minute-long segment boiling down four years of marriage to a woman into nothing but loveless regret, Fletcher loses his chance to do something more meaningful. Even his decades-long partnership with Bernie Taupin feels half-baked, without an ounce of insight into their songwriting process or relationship. Lyrics simply were handed to John and John delivered a tune; no struggles, just instant hits. It’s hard not to consistently compare Rocketman to Bohemian Rhapsody considering their director-in-common, but both frame everything bad that happened after their respective queer artist’s rise to fame as a product of their own fault (both influenced negatively by a queer manager they were romantically involved with in some capacity).
But where Bohemian Rhapsody featured a lot of song performances that were just Queen tracks playing over scenes happening without any attention to creating a musical experience, Fletcher actually makes attempts at staging something. He does everything from recreating Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” music video (for a few moments before the closing credits) to staging elaborate set pieces that require Taron Egerton to haphazardly sprint through scenes while lip syncing. Egerton’s voice is fine enough on its own, a pale, serviceable imitation of Elton John, but the arrangements offer nothing unique and some are even downright disrespectful (“Bennie and the Jets” being remixed to death and prioritizing John’s mother saying “you’ll always be alone” to emphasize gay shame being one of the worst crimes the film commits).
Egerton and Madden’s duet to “Honky Cat” for instance, styled as though we’re panning alongside John walking through months of his love life and the indulgences that come with fame, is an inspired number. Others are more embarrassing than anything else. Where Russell’s Tommy featured Elton John himself performing in giant boots, the “Pinball Wizard” performance here simply circles around a piano-playing John changing costumes (with what looks like bad CGI). Worse yet, John’s suicide attempt is set to “Rocketman” and features him shooting off like a literal rocket after watching his younger self play piano in a space suit. Sensible spectacle and indulgence (say, “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” as a jaunty soliloquy about suicide dressed up like a showtune) a la Baz Luhrmann, or even Rob Marshall, would be appreciated here, as more often than not Fletcher has no interest in capturing the numbers he stages.
An attempt at a walking-and-singing number is fine—just look at how Richard Kelly staged “All These Things That I’ve Done” in Southland Tales or David LaChapelle staged John’s own music video for “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore”—but there has to be some emotion beyond the staging. Where LaChapelle’s video explores what it’s like being at the top of your career and reflecting on that peak, balancing the pleasure and malaise of it all, Fletcher is more interested in exaggerating misery once John’s attained fame and fortune. Rocketman isn’t as dismal and outright self-loathing as Bohemian Rhapsody, but it does indulge in the darker side of John’s life without ever really engaging with why he ended up there. It’s a surface-level biopic that can’t decide if it wants to tell a man’s history or be a jukebox musical and ends up doing neither thing successfully. And with Bohemian Rhapsody setting the bar for biopics about famous gay men six feet under, it’s easy to think this dancing across a grave should get a pass.
Instead, we should be begging for something with color and life, with musical sequences that embody the fun pop music or the exciting rock-n-roll that Elton John gave us instead of accurate production design that means nothing without some spark. For a film about a man whose flamboyance is his calling card, Rocketman should be delivering the kind of excitement and exploration of identity that Todd Haynes gave us with Velvet Goldmine. Egerton, as a performer, gets this, and is frequently compelling and believable in the role, despite occasionally being asked to yell and cry in unnecessary close-ups that serve as Oscar reels. In this modern world where people are willing to settle for two men kissing, removing their shirts, and falling into the missionary position before the camera pans away to a window for fear of showing too much gayness (like Call Me By Your Name all over again), the shameless in-your-face nature of Haynes’ characters enjoying each other feels light years away even though it came two decades before this.
While Rocketman ends with photo captions emphasizing Elton John’s philanthropic work (donating to HIV/AIDS research because AIDS has to be mentioned in anything gay even when it has no bearing on the narrative) and shift towards domesticity in finding his husband (who is thankfully not shoved into the film haphazardly as with Mercury’s partner in the last few minutes of Bohemian Rhapsody), there’s something insincere about it. The film, like many others about queer men, frames sex outside of a relationship where romance is the endgame as something negative, be it a blowjob on a back porch or a Bob Fosse-styled orgy that is tonally adjacent to the rock-bottom scene of Steve McQueen’s Shame.
I request one thing from filmmakers depicting queer lives: let faggots be faggots. Explore why electric boots and mohair suits are more than just costumes and how they become a full persona. Allow a man to suck a dick without feeling awful about it, to enjoy the company of other men without shame. Let a man struggle with suicidal urges and self-destructive tendencies while showing that his queerness (outside of the comfort of domesticity) isn’t inherently linked to that. Elton John and every other gloriously queer performer having their lives told deserves at least that much.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher; written by Lee Hall; starring Taron Egerton, Richard Madden, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Steven Mackintosh; 121 minutes.
Rocketman is now playing in theaters everywhere.