Film review: Rocketman (Director: Dexter Fletcher)
By Sascha Krieger
Not only is Elton John, pardon, Sir Elton John, one of the planet’s greatest pop and rock stars of the past four decades, he is also ultimate showman, the supreme master of masquerade, the undisputed champion of the world in (re-)inventing himself. Director Dexter Fletcher, who recently stepped in to finish a film about another unrivalled show beast specialized in re-imagining himself constantly in Freddie Mercury, does well to – unlike Bohemian Rhapsody – eschew the limitations of the biopic and throw himself and his brilliant star Taron Egerton, who recently in Eddie the Eagle proved himself to be a master of disguise, into a variety show of a film, a carnival of sorts, a two-hour long exercise in role play and imagination. It starts with a bang: A wildly costumed Elton John, dressed in a spectacular orang and red winged devil’s outfit, storms into a building, pushes doors open and ends up – in a therapy session for alcoholics and other addicts. A place to reflect on his life and its choices – but also yet another stage for the impeccable showman.
Soon his childhood memories turn into a musical number as he and a younger alter ego entertain the almost cartoonish post-war English suburban greyness with a raucous rendition of „The Bitch Is Back“. From there, the film dances itself through the various stages of the ugly duckling’s self-transformation into a rather flamboyantly over-the-top swan and the latter’s unravelling through drugs and alcohol, but particularly an environment that – with the notable exception of Jamie Bell’s a little too angelic Bernie Taupin, John’s permanent co-writer and long-time friend – are just at different levels of exploiting the star for personal gain. On one end of the spectrum is Richard Marsden’s rather boring cartoon villain John Reid – the manager’s reputation is having a tough time after faring hardly better in the Mercury film, played by Aidan Gillen – on the other, John’s mother Sheila who Bryce Dallas Howard plays between loving and emotionally abusive, a finely nuanced depiction that in its contradictions provides a key to John’s self esteem issues.
Having said this, Rocketman is anything but a psychological drama, less an exploration of the singer’s „demons“ than their portrayal. With the film, which Elton John’s husband co-produced, the star’s chameleon-like stage personality is extended into a new medium. It reflects his playing with masks and protecting himself inside characters by doing the same thing, by mirroring John’s juggling with personas. It leaves realism when, during a breakout performance, the artist and the audience are lifted off their feet or when, during the titular track, the protagonist takes off like a one-man rocket. And it finds its voice the same way, Elton John did: through music. In the songs, some of which are performed in dialogue, it finds expressions that a (pseudo-)realistic film biography, restrained by the necessary story arch of doubt, failure and redemption never could.
Rocketman works because it finds a cinematic language that fits its protagonist and that shares with him his lust for playing with identity, with re-invention, his willingness to be silly and childish at times, his love for kitsch, bright colours and insanely over-the-top costumes, his ambivalent conflating of reality and fantasy and its belief in the redemptive and connecting power of the pop song. Repeatedly, the film combines times, allows the different Eltons to meet each other, brings the past into the present and vice versa. It is all one performance, the dreary, narrow childhood just another story, another song. If there is psychological explanation it is just another stage act, too – or it is hidden in those deceptively simple songs, in the act of singing, the moment of becoming myself by leaving your „real identity“ behind. And just like Elton John had to find himself through shedding his name and presumed self, the film does so by throwing away (almost) all biopic conventions and replacing them with the routines of the musical. Thus, Dexter Fletcher single-handedly saves the musician’s biopic, fatally wounded in Bohemian Rhapsody by overcoming it, by transforming it into the mixture of magnificent and ridiculous Elton John has always been – expertly and Oscar-worthy captured by the fluorescent Taron Egerton. In order to survive, the biopic has to die. It does so in such an entertaining and imaginative way that the rather bland story frame and the disappointingly conventional ending can be easily forgiven.