Ever watched a movie and struggled to figure out whether or not you liked it? It’s not something that happens often to someone in my line of work. Most times I walk out of the theater with a pretty clear sense of whether or not I found the previous two hours to be worthwhile.
Sometimes a movie will linger beyond the time spent at the cinema, like “The Long Shot”—which continued to make me angry days after enduring its flatulent stench. The new Elton John sort-of biopic “Rocketman” has left me in a strange state: not one of strong love or hate but a kind of cinematic question mark.
Musical biopics are frequently the least inventive genre of film. Last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was an exceptional performance by Rami Malek, wrapped up in a burrito of bland, featuring every cinematic trope topping imaginable. There’s so little joy in musical biopics because it covers familiar territory. We get a brief origin story, followed by a half dozen or so dramatic moments that tell us small bits about how a performer’s greatest songs came to life. There isn’t a musical biopic in the last 10 years that hasn’t made me think of the comedy “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” A satire so biting it has taken a chunk of every musical biopic I have seen since.
“Rocketman” does take the genre into challenging new areas. Instead of traditional over-dramatized story, we get a kind of musical melange of Elton’s life through his own music. Not his entire life, mind you; pretty much his formative years through his attempt at sobriety after nearly ending his life to a handful of oppressive dependencies that nearly destroyed him. Elton (Taron Egerton) navigates through many melodramatic moments of Elton John’s life and at times break into song when a moment in the movie matches the lyrics of one of his massive, chart-topping hits.
Like Dewey Cox, Elton John had some issues with his parents: an unemotional prick of a father and a mother who struggled to deal with the inconveniences of being a mom. And like Dewey Cox, Elton decides the only way to find any sense of worth is to become a super rich megastar. Surely all that success will bring him happiness! When that doesn’t work, he turns to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
We meet a variety of important people in Elton’s life, most notably his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). They have the kind of creative synergy few people in the world are able to achieve. After penning a few songs, Elton is whisked off to Los Angeles where he is quickly deemed “the next big thing.” What follows is a decade of bad habits and even worse relationships. Elton is running away so hard from who he was, he doesn’t take time to figure out who he wants to be.
Then he cut his brother in half with a machete … wait, that was Dewey Cox.
What separates “Rocketman” from other musical biopics are the large-scale song-and-dance numbers that feel like something out of a Broadway musical. In fact, the entire movie feels like it was a long-running Broadway jukebox musical before becoming a film. I’m guessing at some point, it’s going to make that transition.
Liking the film comes down to two things: First, how much do you love Elton John’s music? It’s a trick question because most of the musical numbers feel like incomplete pieces of famous Elton John songs, and much of the time with changed arrangements. I admire the filmmakers for taking some creative liberties with the material, as well as Taron Egerton who sings every song. But at times I basically was hearing restaged karaoke versions of great songs rather than the real thing.
Number two: How much you like seeing Taron Egerton’s face? Half the movie is spent in close-up on the same undulating expressions. Edgerton really does go for broke in his portrayal of Elton John, but it feels a thousand times less nuanced than Rami Malek’s attempt at Freddie Mercury. His performance, like the movie, is over indulgent. There are large musical numbers removed from reality. Greenscreen, seizure-inducing stagings that never really strike the right chords.
There are elements of “Rocketman” I admire. The film feels a little more fresh than the typical biopic, but there’s some cringe-worthy scene-staging and a rehab-framing device that ends up venturing into unintentional hilarity as the filmmakers try to wrap up this portion of Elton’s life.
I still don’t know if I liked “Rocketman,” but I certainly didn’t hate it. Some people may enjoy this kind of sugar-coated confection. Others may find it a little too sleight and sweet for their taste.