Just about everything “Bohemian Rhapsody” did, “Rocketman” does better, weirder and with greater impact.
It’s not that the Elton John biopic is perfect. “Rocketman” follows the narrative arc of seemingly every fictional or documentary portrait of a popular musician so closely that you might find yourself thinking, “Did Elton John plan his life according to the beats of a biopic?” The movie is absurdly hard on Elton’s mother (Bryce Dallas Howard). And it can’t decide where to conclude the 72-year-old pop star’s story, so it just fizzles out.
But whereas “Bohemian Rhapsody” sanded off all the edges of Freddie Mercury in what ended up feeling like a pile of unrevealing scenes, “Rocketman” is as weird, brazen and stylish as the man at its center.
It’ll be interesting, in fact, to see if it is too weird for moviegoers who think they know what to expect from this sort of film. It abandons realism in its opening scene — in which a devil-costumed Elton barrels into a group therapy session and begins monologuing about his dissolute life — and it never looks back. “Rocketman” is a full-on musical, where people on the street break into production numbers, where chronology is rearranged (the 1983 hit “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” pops up in a ’60s audition scene) and where Elton levitates, more than once, in mid-performance.
The film has fun with its more traditional storytelling elements — occasionally marveling at its own exaggerated plot points, as if to say, “Can you believe this scene?” But overall, director Dexter Fletcher’s movie is less “this is what happened” than “this is what it felt like while it was happening.”
So, for instance, disaffected, middle school-age Elton launches into an angry “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” (15 years before it was written) and morphs into adult Elton over the course of the song. And the title number begins with Elton’s Los Angeles suicide attempt, becomes a thrilling ballet as medical personnel attempt to revive him (gracefully) and then deposits him in a depressive funk.
The story may borrow the tropes of a biopic, but this is not like any biopic you’ve seen. If I had to guess, I’d say Fletcher (who took over “Bohemian Rhapsody” when Bryan Singer was fired) was influenced by the psychedelic “Tommy,” in which Elton memorably appeared, and even Federico Fellini’s surreal journey through one man’s life, “8 ½.”
“Rocketman” returns often to the group therapy scenes, where Elton’s poor fellow patients never get to say a word about their own traumas. That’s how it fills in Elton’s neglected childhood, his battles with an unscrupulous lover/manager and his brief marriage to a woman.
In another departure from “Bohemian,” this movie is particularly interested in its hero’s gayness. Elton grew up when homosexuality was still criminalized in England, and “Rocketman” spends a lot of time exploring his alienation and confusion, which may explain why an admitted sex addict who came of age during a notably sex-obsessed time and worked his entire life in a sex-crazed business has never written a single sexy song.
The movie, on the other hand, is sexy, buoyed by Taron Egerton’s confidence and vulnerability in the title role. Most of the songs are integrated into the storytelling — there are very few times when a song is performed from start to finish, in anything resembling the way Elton John originally performed them. So it makes sense for Egerton to do his own singing in a way that hints at Elton’s voice but does not ape it in familiar tunes such as “Your Song” and “Bennie and the Jets.”
In fact, maybe it should be left to a paraphrase of that last hit to sum up the movie’s appeal: Oh, but it’s weird and it’s wonderful. Oh, it’s really keen.