Backlit by the white hot lights of his fame, Elton John (Taron Egerton) bursts through the double doors of boring rehab wearing a bejeweled bright orange angel/demon costume complete with gigantic wings and platform boots. As soon as Elton starts telling his story, he is going to steadily strips away his outrageous costume as he tears away his emotional armor. Rocketman wants you to believe that Elton John shed his debauchery along with the disco 70s like every good boomer, but really he was getting ripped with Duran Duran while filming the supremely homoerotic video for 1983’s I’m Still Standing in Cannes (a recreation of which closes out Rocketman). Anybody who knows Elton John already knows we’re being sold a bulging bag of bullshit because he didn’t get sober until well into the 80s. This is far from the first lie that Rocketman thrusts into our throat.
If the audience is to allow Rocketman some artistic license for telling a fictionalized biopic, the least that the filmmakers can do is give us an original story. Instead, Rocketman is a straightforward retelling of Pink Floyd’s The Wall toned down for the Almost Famous crowd. This Elton is a boy with an absent father and cruelly controlling mother who grows up to be a gay addict looking for love in all the wrong places and falling into a chemically-induced downward spiral as he builds up his wall to keep all chances of love at bay before love has a chance to hurt him. Why, yes, there is a scene where Elton John tries to kill himself by diving into a pool while completely miserably loaded during a backyard party…why do you ask?
If Rocketman utterly fails at telling an original story, it is only mildly more successful at its flights of fancy. Periodically, Dexter Fletcher remembers that he is directing a musical and takes a break from the clichéd melodrama to include nonsensical, poorly-directed musical numbers for Elton’s greatest hits rescored with an orchestra for maximal AM Gold nostalgia. Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting) takes an entertaining detour through a fair where people break out into fights. Why? No reason. It’s a musical. Fuck you, that’s why. The pool suicide turns into an image of young Elton sitting at the bottom of the pool because that’s the most original metaphor the director could come up with.
The most imagination on display in Rocketman is the costume designer’s knack for replicating Elton John’s 1970s costumes, a skill proudly touted in an end credit montage with side by side comparisons of the costuming and real life photos. So much care was driven into these recreations that the whole purpose of this movie should have been seeing Elton John play music and fuck men backstage. If this had been an Elton John recreation of Nine Songs, I’d be singing this film’s praises. Unfortunately, we get too little of either. Nearly every performance is neutered as if we wouldn’t want to see Elton John perform, and there’s only a single brief sex scene, and an underwear-clad orgy metaphor. That’s not to say that Rocketman shies away from being gay, but it does shy away from being hypersexual.
When Taron Egerton sings Pinball Wizard, I wished I was watching The Who’s Tommy. When Elton is sulking in a hotel with a bottle of booze or being tortured by his family, I wished I was watching Pink Floyd’s The Wall. When Rocketman is indulging in brief flights of fancy, I wished I was watching Lisztomania. All three of these other 1970s musicals understand that the musical gives the director permission to indulge in the most weird and outrageous. Compare Elton John crowd surfing on an orgy of people to Franz Liszt riding an 8 foot cock among a bunch of naked women. Rocketman is the most square version of the 1970s tortured rock musician musical imaginable. Every note is utterly familiar.
And, yet…I can’t completely dismiss this as an inaccurate representation of Elton John’s music. He’s a talented performer who masked his admittedly-catchy borderline-adult contemporary songwriting with outlandish outfits, a literal mountain of sassy glasses, and over-the-top performances. Similarly, Rocketman is a well-made movie that masks its somewhat-familiar, borderline-cookie-cutter plot with brief flights of fancy and outrageous outfits that sometimes threatens to turn into an interesting movie. It’s totally a representation of Elton John, the man who wants to be an elder gay statesman but still played at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding. There’s an audience for that sort of thing.