"Restrained" shouldn't be the first word that comes to mind when describing larger-than-life singer Elton John. But that's exactly the descriptor that came to me while watching director Dexter Fletcher's surprisingly timid and conventional rock-musical-biopic of the artist's most unconventional life.
The tagline for "Rocketman" is "based on a true fantasy," and the concept of a musical fantasy at first seems to promise something truly different. And Fletcher (who's no stranger to the biopic genre, having shepherded "Bohemian Rhapsody" across the finish line after Bryan Singer got himself fired late into that film's production) piles on enough spectacle to match John's flamboyant persona. Still, for all its extravagance and razzle dazzle, the film never quite breaks free of the standard biopic formula.
In fact, the only thing that distinguishes "Rocketman" from other similar biopics is that it has the conviction to be a full-fledged musical, with characters breaking into selections from Elton John's enormous catalog of hits even when they're not on stage performing. This approach frees Lee Hall's screenplay from becoming a tedious, chronological point-by-point retelling of the singer's life.
It also makes the film more resemble a Broadway musical -- which isn't a bad thing -- and technically saves some enterprising producer the trouble of adapting the script when the film undoubtedly makes the transfer to the stage somewhere down the line.
Fletcher uses a boldly theatrical framing device, with John (appealingly played by Taron Egerton) -- clad in a sparkly orange, bellbottomed jumpsuit with devil horns, massive, feathered wings, and glittery heart-shaped sunglasses -- reflecting on his life to members of his addiction recovery support group.
Born Reginald Dwight, he was raised by a cold, absent father (Steven Makintosh) and an indifferent mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) who were mostly content to leave him be, at least when they weren't scolding the boy for being "soft."
From a young age, John was a musical prodigy and, with some encouragement from his supportive grandmother, qualifies for a scholarship to a prestigious music academy. There, he cultivates his talents by playing dive bars until a fateful meeting with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who would go on to be his songwriting partner for the next few decades. Together, the pair found massive success, churning out hit after hit.
But the main trouble is that all music biopics seem to follow the same path, and in that way "Rocketman" is no different: An extraordinarily gifted youth finds success, leading to sex, drugs, and alienation of those closest to him, followed by rehab and a final redemption-comeback. Wash, rinse, repeat.
While the narrative may be strictly by the book, there are some wonderful musical sequences throughout, including a lively rendition of "Honky Cat," following John and Reid as they live the high life in more ways than one, a kaleidoscopic take on "Crocodile Rock," John's gravity-defying debut at LA club the Troubadour.
Those production numbers put us in the performer's headspace, dramatizing the singer's twinned struggles with repressed sexuality and addiction, suggesting that his over-the-top onstage persona was really a shield to hide who he really was from the world, while simultaneously becoming an icon to millions. Even John's outrageous style and extravagant costumes -- faithfully recreated by costume designer Julian Day -- were a means to combat his inherent shyness. John himself was closely involved in the production of "Rocketman," and I suppose it's a credit to him that the film doesn't always paint a rosy portrait of the singer in his younger years.
John's upbringing left him starved for affection, with a desperate need to be loved, leading to a destructive relationship with manager-turned-lover John Reid (a charming Richard Madden) who helped make John more at ease with his homosexuality, but ended up wrenching control of his career. Interestingly, a less malicious version of Reid also played a role in the narrative of "Bohemian Rhapsody," portrayed there by actor Aiden Gillen.
Egerton pours his heart and soul into his performance, and it's a testament to his charisma and talent that the film works as well as it does. It's a spirited, lived-in portrayal. Egerton also does his own singing -- not that that's the be-all, end-all of performances, but I appreciate the effort, and helps make for a more fully-realized performance.
The film is effective at illustrating the detrimental effect being closeted had on the singer's quest for happiness and his ability to find love and affection. Thankfully "Rocketman" is not bashful about its portrayal of John's sexuality, and producers have been touting the fact that it's the first wide-release, major studio film to contain gay sex. But before you get too hot and bothered, those scenes are still incredibly tame -- depicting the kind of sex that clearly would have squeaked by with a PG-13 rating if the couple having it were straight.
In the end, I wanted as much garishness and audacious risk-taking from the narrative as the film's subject demonstrated throughout his life. After watching the film, some of my viewing companions discussed what a filmmaker like Baz Luhrmann might have done with the same material. Luhrmann is a filmmaker who knows how to overwhelm the senses, his style veering fearlessly into excess -- much like John himself -- in ways this film could have used more of.
Fletcher's direction too often feels overly concerned with being respectful. His is a crowd-pleasing film, but one that clings to convention in a way that makes the story feel that much more muted and small. It seems the makers of these biopics feel the need to force artist's lives to fit into the same predetermined box -- if occasionally a spectacularly decorated one -- and the choice keeps this "Rocketman" decidedly earthbound.