Throughout “Rocketman,” the new Elton John biopic with the stylised title of one of his most famous songs, I kept trying to think of a better name for the film. As good as the song is, the film’s title doesn’t quite make sense even though it argues the case that John is out of the reach of those around but trying to come down to earth. It’s the first conceit of the film that is sustained throughout.
In this story, John’s life journey is punctuated by his time in rehab. John, played by Taron Egerton, tells of his undulating fortunes to a therapist and a group of fellow drug addicts. This framing device is easily the worst thing about “Rocketman,” which is, for the most part, committed to being fun. The film, especially its middle section, privileges constant montages with zippy editing, throwing the audience into the chaotic headspace of John’s exciting stage career, with his preening moves, bold costumes and tinkling pianos all in tow. “Rocketman” is never uncommitted but the film is also not necessarily compelling for its commitment.
“Rocketman” is immediately noticeable and valuable for not just being a musical biopic but making an attempt to be an actual musical film, where characters communicate emotions and feelings through songs, rather than simply perform for an audience within the film. It’s the film’s most creative idea and, as a fan of musicals, it makes me immediately sympathetic to the way it actually attempts something significant (and underappreciated) in mainstream cinema. But its ideas are not enough to keep “Rocketman” safely aloft.
John’s songs are so story-driven that the choice grounds the film and the ideas never truly coalesce. A great portion of the narrative is based on the relationship between John and his long-time lyricist and friend Bernie Taupin. But for all the chintzy glamour, the film does not have a good handle on human interaction and its stylised mode ends up becoming an issue. On one hand, “Rocketman” is unable to offer any real assessment of John and Taupin as a song-writing duo as it seems alarmingly uninterested in the nature of making art. In a way, it’s good we are saved from sequence after sequence of Taupin and John coming up with specific songs but the relationship between the two is the film’s strongest bellwether and that it never approaches any interest in the creative process feels telling. It feels especially disappointing since Jamie Bell’s turn as Taupin is easily the best performance in the “Rocketman.” Through sheer commitment, he forces a complex performance out of a thinly written role. Divorced from an interest in the creative process, though, “Rocketman” also fails to ignite as a jukebox musical and uses music to tell a random story when the musical choices seem divorced from the narrative. The film is never badly written but it mistakes functionality for emotional value, and so moments of emotional resonance are drowned in requisite moments of this song leading into that song leading into that song and so on.
In a film where John is meant to be centred as a tortured semi-genius on a joyride of a life, it doesn’t help that he is almost consistently the least compelling person on screen, no matter the iteration (child, teen, adult). This isn’t a disservice to any of the three actors playing the character, especially the main one, played by Egerton, who is much better here than in the vile “Robin Hood” from last year. He commits to the performance with aplomb but what’s striking about “Rocketman” is the way how John doesn’t register much as a person. This should be an incisive assessment of his life, but instead “Rocketman,” for which John has a producing credit, feels glossy and superficial.
Luckily for Egerton and director Dexter Fletcher, there’s enough beyond John to satisfy on varying levels. What’s not good for Egerton, and especially Fletcher, is that these varyingly satisfying elements aren’t always in sync. The cast is game even (and especially) when they’re working in different film genres. The costumes and sound mixing are also great and the dogged earnestness of everything on screen is marginally charming. The makeup design, however, is inexplicably bad (although it’s good on Egerton as John) and the pacing harms it too. There are moments that puncture the atmosphere of sameness that persists but it’s all too regular and never makes an argument for what the point is meant to be. The film needs to be either messier, weirder, or more specific. Instead, it’s really just harmless, which is fine but also frustrating. It’s functionally shot and presented but there’s not much underneath, and that feels like a reflection of its own disinclination to really dig beneath the surface.
“Rocketman” has no real interest in real life. It seems satisfied to present a generic version of a musical biopic, dressed up to glossy and chintzy delight. And it’s acceptable in that way. But the chintz and gloss seem to have no centre. Even when it earns its most enjoyable moments, the film feels strangely pointless in a way that achieves little. At the end, it remakes one of John’s 80s songs as a sort of rousing-rise-from-the-ashes anthem but the moment feels odd when it hasn’t made any real argument for its own existence up to this point. And that’s the damning thing about the film. “Rocketman” should thrill with the blast off, searing itself in our memory for hours or days after. But when the credits roll at the end, it’s just too much like another song from our hero: “It’s easier to walk away.”
“Rocketman” is currently playing at MovieTowne and Caribbean Cinemas.