How and Why 'Rocketman' Works as a Biopic
Last year when he-who-shall-not-be-named's Bohemian Rhapsody was released, despite public and awards adoration the reviews were a little...mixed. And it's not hard to see why. The journey of Freddie Mercur-sorry, Queen's build up to their pivotal Live Aid performance ticked many dramatic biopic boxes, yet in many ways felt safe and unremarkable. There's of course an argument to be made that it was the popularity of Queen and Mercury himself that drove audiences to theatres and lead it to become the highest-grossing drama of all time. During production, after a certain-someone was fired from the project midway through filming, originally-attached British Director Dexter Fletcher picked up the project for the remainder of principle photography, and this seemed to provide him with the perfect practice for his next feature - Rocketman.
The Elton John biopic released earlier this year feels fresh and inventive in many ways that BoRap didn't. It's all personal taste, but Fletcher and the team manage to infuse a typical downtrodden life story into an entertaining and emotional ride, one I thought biopics had long since abandoned... let's have a look how.
1) It isn't really a biopic - and therefore it's free to do whatever...
At least, not it's not a biopic in a typical sense. Arguably the wisest and most effective choice during production of Rocketman was to turn it into a jukebox Musical along the lines of Grease or even Moulin Rouge! Here, Elton's discography is incorporated into the film through lavish and extravagantly-produced dance sequences that could be chopped up and sold as music videos in their own right...yet they all serve a purpose. Characters sing hardly ever as part of the narrative unless it's to prove a point, instead classics like 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting' are used to transition between character ages.
Lee Hall's screenplay wisely allows the music to take on a omniscient presence, transporting the audience and the characters on screen to whatever emotional depths or heights they're currently feeling. Want to show Elton feeling elated his first time performing in America? Have the entire crowd literally levitate as he plays 'Crocodile Rock'. Moments like these feel memorable and treat songs how they're meant to be treated, they're so much more than just the artist performing them, they're escapes from the mundanity of it all. Would you rather watch endless scenes of Elton and his manager/lover John Reid arguing over his plummeting health or have the titular 'Rocketman' usher in a mystical, drowning suicide attempt? Your answer will signify whether you like intrigue or genricism in this case.
In these brief moments the film can shift genres and change presentational styles. It's never boring. But that doesn't mean it refuses to play by the rules of course...
2) ...but when it does, it stays lean and respectful.
With all that said, Rocketman still has a job to do, and Elton John's life story is filled with just as many peaks and valleys as other musicians, arguably more than most. Between the jukebox popcorn foot-tapping musical numbers, Fletcher and co. ensure that the filmic elements of Rocketman hold just as strong. Whether it's through the drained, bland colours of Reginald Dwight's life in 1950s London before becoming Elton before becoming the flamboyant saturated style of fame, there are so many tiny details spread across the traditional dramatic sections. The generic structure of Elton looking back through his life from a support group is pastiched and twisted by his glittery red devil costume that counteracts the grey room he's in; even when the film is restrained to genre conventions it does so by its own rules. For example, little details such as his devil costume being torn dissected part-by-part everytime we pull back to narrator Elton signifies the way his therapy is working. We're slowly pulling off the facade he's developed throughout his stage presence and getting closer to the heart of who the musician really is. It's very easy to dismiss small moments like this but it's the attention to detail that add to the filmmaking and prove that those involve actually cared about the film they were making, even when having to adhere to a structure and presentation style that connects with audiences.
This means that whilst there are still plenty of faux-inspirational lines of dialogue ("Life gives you few chances, this is one") it still manages to imbue many of them with Elton's signature dry, matter-of-fact outlook on life ("I started acting like a cunt in 1975 and just forgot to stop"). His lifetime-long friendship with songwriter Bernie Taupin (a wide-eyed and passionate Jamie Bell) is possibly the best-explored relationship within the film, and is possibly the only other character that comes across as 'good' (because everyone in the film is either placed into 'good' or 'bad ' camps - it is still a biopic in that aspect). This is all because the focus is fully placed on Egerton's Elton, wisely using its runtime to develop his character in order to achieve the emotional heights it reaches when his story plummets into drug-addled suicide attempts and desperate struggles for love.
3) Taron Egerton
It'd be foolish to talk about why the film works without talking about its star, especially in a genre that's made a name for itself by featuring standout performances from its actors. Egerton walks a fine line in his performance as John, nailing his mannerisms and physical presence, but this is far from mimicry. Unlike some other films where the stars are too caught up in portraying a real-life character, Egerton treats Rocketman like any other job and crafts a three-dimensional character with intense flaws and manic highs. It also doesn't hurt that he personally sings all the film's songs in a way that rings true to Elton's delicate-yet-stadium-filling bravado (apparently in the blu-ray release the musical sequences are extended too). If there was justice in the world (which there isn't), Egerton would be nominated for numerous awards for his performance, although for some reason I doubt that will be the case...
Rocketman wisely keeps the emotional beats tied to Egerton's hectic actions on screen or the musical numbers. It's cheating a little by milking a discography that, up until the film, I hadn't realised I knew so much of. Music naturally hits harder emotionally and greatly helps certain scenes achieve a sense of poignancy I didn't expect to feel for Elton John.
I left the cinema feeling refreshed, and have often cited it as one of my personal surprises of the year simply in terms of how much I enjoyed it. Time will tell whether Rocketman rightfully appeals to biopic fans on a deeper level, unlike the shallow-feeling Bohemian Rhapsody, but something tells me the story of Reginald Dwight could find a second wind in home release, allowing Dexter Fletcher and all involved to take a well-earned victory lap.
I like doing these explorations/analyses of films/television shows from time to time. If you have a certain show or film or text you'd be interested in hearing my thoughts on, or if you'd be interested in contacting me about potential writing work then give me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear what you think.
Rocketman is now available on Blu Ray & DVD.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road still makes me feel things.
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