'Rocketman' Review: Better Than 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and Infinitely More Fun
2018’s Freddie Mercury biopic was a critical darling, winning four Academy Awards and two Golden Globes, including an inexplicable Best Actor Oscar win for Rami Malek’s marble-mouthed rendition of Queen’s frontman. Now here comes along a biopic of another, very different British music icon — yet the two were born within a year of one another, dominated international music charts for many of the same years, and they both grew up in Middlesex county of England. They even both change their birth names to seem cooler.
You could summarize both these movies like this: Lonely young boy from a troubled English home discovers a unique musical talent music, and by nurturing said talent and embracing an alternate personality as a rock star, they’re able to embark on a wildly successful, drug-addled career as an international sensation despite a few assholes along the way trying to take advantage of them.
But whereas Bohemian Rhapsody dwells on Mercury’s vitriol and shame in a somber story that’s at times grueling and joyless, Rocketman is fueled by pure, bombastic, flamboyant joy. Bohemian Rhapsory was always trying to be Oscar bait. Rocketman just wants to have fun.
Rocketman fully embraces Elton John’s fantasy wonderland, with song and dance numbers bleeding into the story in surreal ways. It’s closer to Moulin Rouge or Across the Universe than a traditional biographical film, at times even transforming into an outright Elton John music video. It’s still grounded in real characters and honest performances, but Rocketman also relishes in the more fantastical elements.
The pianist’s signature kick-to-handstand move becomes an otherworldly moment that causes everyone in the room to levitate during the performance that essentially launches his career. When he inevitably sings “Rocketman,” he literally blasts off into the sky and explodes into a shower of fireworks.
At other times, these musical sequences take on a life of their own, quickly filling in long stretches of Elton John’s life, all in the service of transitioning us forward in time to the next beat of the story. Using songs to transition between scenes like this elevates Rocketman to a spectacle.
Focusing it all is the film’s framing structure: Elton John walks into an alcoholics anonymous meeting wearing a ridiculous and fabulous winged devil costume. From here, he recounts his entire life to a group of strangers, dancing and singing into the past catches up to him, he confronts the ghosts of his past, and he moves forward.
Rocketman owes everything, however, to its lead actor Taron Egerton, whose effortless charm infects every project he’s worked on, particularly Kingsman and its sequel.
To drag it back to a Bohemian Rhapsody comparison, whereas Rami Malek glowers and scowls before smirking nervously, Taron Egerton positively beams throughout Rocketman, grinning through a giant peacock headdress and ridiculous rhinestone glasses. Nobody’s had this much fun in a leading role since Jason Momoa in Aquaman. This is to say nothing of how some accused Bohemian Rhapsody of being “an insult to Freddie Mercury” for its homophobia while Rocketman never shies away from Elton John’s homosexuality, even while admitting he once married a woman.
There’s also the obvious: Egerton actually sung all of his own numbers. Malek didn’t.
But enough of these comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody.
Anyone with even a casual interest in Elton John or his music will find a lot to love in Rocketman. Almost every biographical film gets boring at times, but Rocketman is a relentless and fascinating look at the man’s life. It’s full of fun little factoids like how he stole “Elton” from a former bandmate and “John” when, in a panic, he saw John Lennon in a photo of the Beatles during a meeting.
Elton John himself is credited as an executive producer on the project, so we can treat many such details as previously unrevealed truths. But therein also lies the film’s only potential fault: Most biopics rely on second-hand sources and written biographies to inform their stories, which is to say we get the story from multiple perspectives, honing in on an objective truth of the events that shaped the subject’s life and how it impacted the people in it.
We don’t get that here. We get Elton John’s version of Elton John’s life. That’s not necessarily a bad thing by any means, but it’s still something worth thinking about.
Even when Elton John is at his lowest in the film, alienating friends and family and abusing every single substance known to man, culminating in a very public suicide attempt, the film still portrays him in a positive light. His parents, his first manager Dick James, his second manager and lover John Reid, drift in and out of his life like minor villains before Elton John triumphantly overcomes his addictions.
He’s the hero in his own story, but can we blame him for that?
Rocketman will be released in theaters May 31, 2019.