Rocketman ★½

If I were to become a cinema Hammurabi and start carving edicts into the stone walls of Hollywood, here’s one of the laws of empire: 

Thou shalt not make a biopic about a living person.

If Dexter Fletcher had been a law abiding subject and adhered to this directive, Rocketman could have been a bog standard biopic that would have made its requisite cash and been a forgettable but not bad film. And for the first ninety minutes, that’s what it is, following almost the same exact track as Fletcher’s last project, Bohemian Rhapsody. Virtuoso artist introduced at a critical career juncture, backstory, overcoming obstacles, dangers of success, blah blah blah blah. Boring, doctrinaire, but not necessarily a chore to sit through. 

But. Elton John is still among the living. Worse than that, he is an executive producer. Which means that the story is being told by a man still laying hands on his own history. Which enables that hideous ending. In something that could have come from an 80s pop psychology retreat, Elton John literally hugs his inner child and everything is okay now. There’s a lot of grating, literal moments in this film, and that serves as the worst of the lot. We close on a photo album of Elton John as he retires to a life of good works and knighted sainthood. Not only is this living monument to his self become hateful in these moments, it recontextualizes everything else in the film’s action. Ultimately, this is the story of a victim, primarily beset by first his parents and then his business manager/boyfriend. Once he frees himself of his various persecutors, Elton John is now able to be the Good Person that he and therefore the film are convinced that he is. All of the negative aspects of his personality are explained away by an unfulfilling childhood and the music industry personified. For something that opens in an AA meeting this is a profound lack of personal accountability. 

Not, and I want to stress this, not that there even needs to be personal accountability. What kills these films every time is the essential squareness of the American movie audience. If someone engages in unfiltered sex, drugs, and rock & roll, they must be punished. We are absolutely ravenous for the artistic output enabled by substance use and the pain underneath that drives those things, but we insist on penance for it afterward from its creators. This is a poisonous strain of thought bequeathed to us from the Mayflower and I will stand against it until they pitch me in a hole. I believe in letting a musician enjoy a double whiskey and a bump of coke before laying down the guitar track to Werewolves of London and going on his merry way. It does not help at all, by the way, that Elton John’s musical output, like so many before him, fell off the quality cliff after he got sober. 

The details are the details and in a biopic they are largely unchanging. Taron Egerton does a good Elton John impersonation, and I’m thinking of decreeing a law that punishes with death the conflating of a good impersonation with a good performance. The music is decent, but gets excessively twee in more than a few places. The more artsy moments are absolutely ridiculous, including where Elton John literally becomes a rocket and flies up into the sky. Jamie Bell plays the equivalent of the entire rest of Queen from Bohemian Rhapsody. Richard Madden heads up a cast of cartoon villains. This was cruising along at about a C- before it got excessively stupid. 

Of primary interest as a test case to see if the Academy is holding a Best Picture spot open for “queer music biopic where people learn lessons.”

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