‘Rocketman’: How to tell a rockstar’s story, properly

Wednesday, June 5, 2019 - 5:10pm

Paramount Pictures

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Taron Egerton (“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”) doesn’t consider “Rocketman” a biopic. While the story revolves around the life and music of Elton John, Egerton himself filling John’s (platform) shoes, he has a point: “Rocketman,” with its all-out musical numbers and its elegant balance of fantasy with realism, isn’t like the other biopics.

At the same time, it seems impossible to discuss “Rocketman” without invoking another biopic in particular. Yes, you (probably) guessed it: “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Its subjects, Queen and their legendary frontman Freddie Mercury, have hardly left the musician-biopic limelight since the film’s Nov. 2018 release, though they’ll soon be forced to share the space with an increasing number of artists. To that end, we have films highlighting the lives and/or music of Boy George, Aretha Franklin, Judy Garland and Céline Dion lined up in the near future. In spite of the critical and popular success of “Bohemian,” however, I would urge the filmmakers in charge of telling these beloved artists’ stories to look instead to “Rocketman,” if they’re interested in pulling off more than their artist’s highlight reel.

Where “Bohemian” had trouble deciding if Freddie Mercury or Queen’s songs were the point of the film, “Rocketman” never took the man behind the music or his story for granted. Where “Bohemian” reduced Mercury’s queer identity to a plot point, “Rocketman” treated John’s homosexuality like it was, oh, I don’t know, part of his being a person. In short, Dexter Fletcher (“Eddie the Eagle”), who took over direction of “Bohemian Rhapsody” after Bryan Singer was accused of sexual assault and was on board for all of “Rocketman,” seems to have learned from the former’s errors.

But make no mistake: “Rocketman” is not “Bohemian” 2.0. Returning to Egerton’s sentiment, the film should not be defined strictly in the ways it holds up against other biopics. Its innovative employment of musical and fantasy genre techniques and its confident foregrounding of queer sexuality are due singular praise.

The musical lended them ingenious transition scenes, hinging on overlapping lyrics, and at best commendable, at worst forgivable flashes forward in the film’s timeline. It’s extraordinary how much time they covered without oversimplifying any events in John’s life (the most notable exception being his marriage former wife Renate Blauel, but I’m not going to gripe about a film that respected a queer character refusing to dwell on his brief collapse under the weight of heteronormative pressure).

It is also extraordinary what the fantastical elements managed to represent. Each song is magically transported into the era of its making. Gravity is suspended during John’s first performance at The Troubadour, as John levitates above the piano bench and the enthused crowd rises along with him. Never have I seen those imprecise feelings — the ill-ease that comes with revisiting our bygone work, the floating sensation you experience when a musician just moves you — so precisely captured on screen.

What excels the most about “Rocketman,” however, is not its visual splendor or “La La Land”-caliber song-and-dance. It’s that the movie treats each of its characters fairly. How many films could say the same? Villains and heroes are formulaic for a reason. For a completely different reason — above all, its abiding belief in the goodness and subsequent redeemability of all people — “Rocketman” pays no heed to these formulae and dares to criticize its protagonist while being sympathetic about why we end up hurting the people we’re supposed to love.

We see this in another of the film’s innovations: Remaking solos into duets, trios and the like. Picture this: John sings the opening lyrics to “I Want Love,” when suddenly, the people he’s singing about claim some of the lines. His flawed mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, “Jurassic World”), his cold father (Steven Mackintosh, “Urban Hymn”), his steadfast grandmother (Gemma Jones “God’s Own Country”). These thoughtful recreations remind us that we sing along to songs about real people.

Ultimately, this character-oriented generosity sets us up for the resolution of the narrative, which is self-love. Fantasy or not, the most fantastic element of this film lies in its care for its subject and the cast of characters who shaped the Elton John we know. In the reminders that when our favorite writers and lyricists write, they write about living, breathing people. In the strength it takes to admit to our dependencies — to say to someone, “I never told you how much I need you.” In loving and forgiving our friends, family and selves, which may not be such different operations after all. It’s a film that believes the love of our friends saves us: What more could you ask of a film, biopic or not, fantasy or otherwise?

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“Rocketman”

Paramount Pictures

Ann Arbor 20 + IMAX, GT6 Quality 16, the State Theatre