Elton John is one of my favorite performers. When I wasn’t jamming to AC/DC or Queen in high school, I was belting John’s powerful pop ballads. His music is emotional, and I can’t help sing along. The only problem I run into with his music is that I don’t know all the words to the songs. Elton John is a masterfully emotive singer, but his diction needs improvement. I joke with my friends that John sings his vowels loud and proud, but his enunciation of consonants could be more precise.
Similar to John’s issues with diction, “Rocketman” directed by Dexter Fletcher is supposed to be an emotional journey for audiences, but it’s not always clear what Fletcher is trying to say with shot choices, editing and established musical parallels.
I admit that I was intrigued by the film at first. John, played competently by Taron Egerton, is in rehab speaking to a support group at the beginning of the movie. While there, he tells his life story and how he fell into a severe addiction. This setup for the film’s narrative is effective, and the transition from rehab to John’s childhood is smooth and creative.
We get a sense that John is in a fever dream as he eyes visions of himself as a child. Then this vision becomes an entire recreation of his childhood neighborhood, but the image breaks the bounds of realism because the people there break into song and dance numbers. The choreographer and the young actor playing John, Matthew Illesley, deserve the most credit for this sequence. The dances are lively and set the right mood for the scene, and Illesley is a powerhouse singer. I wish we had more time with him in the movie.
While watching the opening number, I was convinced that I was going to love this film. I thought it would be an Elton John musical fantasia or rock opera bouncing viewers from one elaborate choreographed number to another. I also hoped that the director and writers would approach this biopic differently than any other before it and indicate John’s emotions through song rather than excessive dialogue. To an extent, I think that was their intention, but that desire was muddled.
I didn’t get a musical fantasia or a rock opera because the musical sequences were broken with cliche music biopic plotlines. I understand it’s unfair to call a man’s life a cliche because it’s possible that John had a dismissive dad, a conniving boyfriend/manager, a falling out with his closest friends, and a dramatic rise again. But my issue with these subplots is that they could have been cherry-picked from other biopics such as “Walk the Line” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Elton John’s life might not be a cliche, but when stacked up next to other films of this genre, it certainly looks like one.
For that reason, the writers and director should have been more creative and taken more liberties with the standard screenplay structure of a music artist biopic. They can’t change John’s life story, but what they could have done was something more original with the dialogue. The dialogue in “Rocketman” is bland, and the performances are melodramatic. The people around John don’t say anything of great consequence. Instead, they speak to keep the plot moving. What is unforgivable though is that the dialogue and performances take away from the music. Music must always be the focus in a film like this, but “Rocketman” is a musical extravaganza shackled to a mediocre drama.
Music artist biopic writers and director should stop following the same formula because it doesn’t work anymore. The songs might get butts in seats, but when audiences have to sit through poor performances and a slogging screenplay, it is not worth it. Listen to the song on Spotify or turn on classic radio. Elton John is bound to turn up.
I didn’t hate “Rocketman,” but I expected something more original for Elton John’s life story. I wanted a film that is as flamboyant, joyous, creative, and entertaining as Elton John is. This simply wasn’t enough.