While last years Bohemian Rhapsody can be accused of having a narrow focus and a somewhat warped idea of the issues facing an iconic figure, Rocketman manages to flit between the many conflicting elements of a psyche that proves both fascinating and relate-able while allowing for moments of genuine wonder. Some might say it is a window into the LGBT community, others will talk about its message of acceptance and understanding. Personally, the story of Elton John here proves to be more satirical in nature with it riffing on the notion of stardom and the tragic elements of it. Despite what you could say about his life and what people might make of the film, this is the story of a dreamer, one that can’t help but feel reductive in how it displays a life lived in glorious technicolor.
Telling the story of Reginald Dwight (Taron Egerton), an introverted yet talented musician who re-imagines himself as outgoing, flamboyant Elton John. While his meteoric rise to fame comes with the many highs of new hits, he grapples with his addictions, the neuroses of his childhood and the vampiric nature of those around him, trying to sap him of a little bit of the fame and money he has accumulated.
While director Dexter Fletcher taps into the notion of John as the performer, filling the films first half with enough colour and wild hallucinations to really make it sing, it gives way to a second-half more interested in the downward spiral, the captivating nature of his path towards rock bottom becoming more important than really delving into who John was. Saying more in the wild romps through his mind than it ever does during droll yet lifeless therapy sessions, Rocketman misses almost as much as it hits.
This might well be a film of self-discovery, a tale about a young man figuring out who he is outside of what people want him to be, but honestly, the real tale of self-discovery is the film itself. The film only really learns what works by toying with differing tones and ideas. The opening musical number set the stage for a vibrant, full of life extravaganza and when the film sinks playfully into these mindset explaining melodic interludes you feel closer to understanding and knowing just who John was/is.
It is when Fletcher and by extension writer Lee Hall settle into black and white, biographical storytelling that things go awry. This story requires a certain level of freedom and this anecdotal approach, the kind where we are told what to think and when to think it, turns something with magic into something rote and joyless. The irony here is that a film about being true to yourself and not anyone else’s idea of you is made less than by the film’s own identity crisis.
While the concept of self is first and foremost in the mind of John here, it doesn’t translate across the myriad of fantasies he enjoys throughout. Despite a fearless and excentric performance by Egerton, one that is utterly consumed by the idea of self. Be it self-loathing, self-doubt or just a general lack of self, the twisting mentality here never comes into focus. While it is easy to imagine the outlandish fantasies he possesses at the start come from a naive mind, the lack of dreams of a more down to earth existence wouldn’t have been amiss in a conclusion that proves less stirring.
While the film never really loses itself, always focused on the story it is telling it shies away from certain aspects in favour of a tale more obsessed with family and belonging. The film, although peppered with drugs, sex and alcohol, sees these aspects as storytelling crutches, elements that supposedly prove cliché and detrimental to the overall dynamic. While this approach is commendable it removes you from the psychedelic fever dream-esque quality that enamours you to the film in the first place forcing it to forego an element of the fantastical it sorely needs.
Despite the breathtaking visual and thrilling soundtrack, this isn’t the free and adventurous film it sets out to be. Throw in an abysmal performance by Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s controlling and hypocritical mother and you have a film that strives for greatness but finds itself trapped under a ceiling of its own making struggling to figure out just who it is and what it really wants to say.