It seems to be en vogue to make a biopic about a rockstar struggling with identity and fame. (Even more so if the rockstar wore a lot of sequins and took a lot of drugs…but then, what rockstar in the early 70s didn’t?)
Following the success of last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, director Dexter Fletcher (who took over the Queen biopic after Bryan Singer was fired) helms this film that is part musical, part biography, and part fantasy. It follows John from childhood until the 1980s, through some of the most turbulent moments of his life, and does not shy away from depicting the highs and lows of his career. Behind the glitter and the spectacle is a very honest approach to the storytelling.
Rocketman is more than just the story of a rockstar’s rise to fame; it’s the love story of Elton John.
As a lifelong fan of Elton John (my father used to sing “Your Song” to me as a lullaby), this film delivers on every level. Good music? Check. Fantastical costume design? Check. An honest and inspiring look at one of the world’s greatest singers? Check. Check. Check.
The film is framed by Elton John (Taron Egerton) telling us his story while in group therapy at rehab. In fact, we first see him walk through the doors in a sparkly red devil outfit, and the way the light filters in behind him gives the appearance of Lucifer Morningstar, fallen straight from heaven. (Fletcher’s use of light is one of my favorite things in his directorial style.)
John begins his story when he was still Reginald Dwight and learning to play the piano. He learns quickly, and soon we’re watching him playing in pubs and as a background musician for American bands. We see him meet Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), a lyricist in need of someone to set his words to music. Soon, they’re touring the world together, and the higher they rise, the more that Elton immerses himself in booze and drugs.
Interwoven into the story are Elton’s most famous songs, some done as performances (a la BoRhap), and some performed as true musical numbers. As Elton’s fame increases, the costumes get more elaborate, but his performances become more and more shallow. In a particularly telling moment, we see an extra jab him with an injection and shove him onstage. At his most famous, Elton is little more than a performing robot, and behind the glitz and glamour, is a lonely man with a lot of self-loathing.
I could write a detailed summary of the depiction of Elton’s toxic relationships with his mother, his lover/manager John Reid (Richard Madden), or his estranged father, but although they are all contributing factors in Elton’s downward spiral, this is really the story of Elton confronting his own demons. No one can save Elton but Elton himself, and the climax of the film is him realizing just that.
It is only fitting then that as Elton tells his story to the other people in the rehab clinic–and thereby us–he sheds his devil costume and some of his demons in the process. Slowly, he confronts the people who have had the strongest negative influences in his life (taking a bit of artistic license with the time frame, because John Reid remained Elton’s manager until the late 90s) and frees himself from his demons.
As a man who yearned for love first from his family, and then later his lover, the concluding thought that he needs to love himself first and foremost is a particularly poignant one. The most tender moment of the film is when Elton embraces a younger version of himself, summarily ending his cycle of self-loathing.
With Pride month beginning this weekend, this film arrives at the perfect moment, because I believe that many in the LGBTQ community may have faced similar journeys in a search of self-love and acceptance. Just maybe without the Rolls Royce and designer clothing. It’s an important message to anyone who was told that they would never be loved for who they are: your love story begins with loving yourself.
Rocketman is now playing in U.S. cinemas.