Rocketman ★★★

Even before Elton John plays "Pinball Wizard" halfway through Rocketman this film is cut more from the cloth of Tommy than it is Bohemian Rhapsody. There isn't an exploding can of beans but John does explode in the sky like a firework as a method of teleportation into an airplane to take him to his next gig even though he doesn't know where he's going because he's on a never-ending bender. And those fantasia-like moments is where Rocketman succeeds—as a parade of elaborate song and dance moments. Consequently, across from John (Taron Egerton) in that giddy plane moment is Bernie (Jamie Bell), his longtime songwriting partner and friend, and it's their friendship that grounds the non musical moments amongst the parade of rock biopic clichés that stitch the narrative together. And that's primarily because Bell is fantastic as Bernie and Taron's best non-singing moments, where his emotions aren't a teleprompter for the nosebleed seats, are when he's opposite Bernie, recoiling from an attempted kiss but glad that his friend is understanding and remained seated so close to him, nary a muscle flinched.

In regards to homosexuality, yes, Rocketman assuredly rockets past Bohemian Rhapsody in that realm, not that there's full-on fucking, but there are frenzied belt-buckle fumblings, fully passionate kisses, an implied blowjob, and perhaps most important, though John is shown having a girlfriend and wife he is never shown kissing or even attempting a single moment of heterosexuality; so the minute ratio of "exclusively gay moments" (as Disney has dubbed through PR) to straight-life-grappling is a full bar graph all on its own. Although, it is curious how black men and women are sexual props here, only popping up to guide the sexuality of Elton and Bernie by making the first move for them.

So, yes, it is quite different than Bohemian Rhapsody and is a full-fledged musical as opposed to biopic. And while that provides the freedom of fantasy numbers at the bottom of a pool, atop an emergency room gurney, and exploding from a teen performance into a young man's carnival, Dexter Fletcher (the replacement director for Bohemian Rhapsody, no less, when Bryan Singer was fired), is still hamstrung by the standard framing devices of a music biopic. While, thankfully, John isn't introduced backstage about to go on for a performance while he re-evaluates his career as a flashback introduction, John's check-in to rehab in full performance garb isn't far removed. And it does set up the film's narrative thrust to be primarily about John's desire for love and how drugs and alcohol filled that void and overcoming it is the primary narrative thrust—full of group sessions that creates an explanation safe space between musical numbers. Indeed, the very first credit title card is a celebration of how many years sober John has been. Which is worth celebrating, indeed, but while the rest of the film gets to be its own bedazzled beast that's running opposite big budget musical biopic trends, the rehab framing device does place it on the boring familiar grounds of every musical biopic of this century that was not made by a titan of New Queer Cinema (coincidentally, the adventurous Todd Haynes' I'm Not There and Gus Van Sant's Last Days couldn't even name their characters after the actual characters, so the Estate-sanctioned template on display in all the other movies feels forever templated into place).

So, while it's better than most of its ilk, Rocketman only soars intermittently. But when it does, it flexes more imagination than so many nostalgic cash grabs. The most Ken Russell-inspired moment occurs in a beguiling sequence of overdose into costumed performance, the show always needing to go on, and Egerton snapping into place like a marionette; a plaything for the world.

Block or Report

Brian liked these reviews