Much ado has been made about Elton John’s insistence that the filmmakers behind his biopic ‘Rocketman’ not sand the edges of his sometimes tumultuous life.
A piece that John wrote in the Guardian about the film, which opens in the UAE on June 13, has made the internet rounds a few times lately where he says “some studios wanted to tone down” the film so it would “get a PG-13 rating”.
John further said: “But I just haven’t led a PG-13 rated life. I didn’t want a film packed with drugs and sex, but equally, everyone knows I had quite a lot of both during the 70s and 80s, so there didn’t seem to be much point in making a movie that implied that after every gig, I’d quietly gone back to my hotel room with only a glass of warm milk.”
That might sound like it’s just a titillating ploy to sell tickets, but it points toward what makes ‘Rocketman’ work, particularly in an age of tepid biopics like the much-awarded movie about Freddie Mercury and Queen, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ Though ‘Rocketman’ was directed by Dexter Fletcher, who actually finished the Queen biopic after the departure of Bryan Singer, the two films couldn’t be further apart.
Rock ‘n’ roll
One of the major flaws of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and other films of its ilk, such as ‘Walk the Line’ about Johnny Cash and ‘Ray’ about Ray Charles, is the way they tone down the less savoury aspects of the artist’s life. Part of the reason seems to be that these movies are meant to create a warm glow in the audience — the same glow created by the songs that made these people popular in the first place. Viewers have to grapple with their darker sides, but only for a moment.
Much like The Who’s drummer Keith Moon did with an infamous television set, ‘Rocketman’ throws that formula out the hotel window. Instead of glossing over the rough bits — namely, John’s anger issues and addiction to alcohol and drugs — it focuses on them. For much of the movie, John isn’t a very likable character. He’s cruel, narcissistic, high, drunk and terrified. He doesn’t push everyone who loves him away so much as bulldozes over them.
And the camera doesn’t look away. We watch John snort mountains of powder, only to have them return as blood dripping from his nose. Stomachs are pumped in full detail.
Setting it further apart from other movies of its kind, John’s songs — many of which might sound poppy and pleasant but are actually about sorrow and solitude — are employed during these dark moments. ‘Rocket Man,’ the song that lent its name to the film, begins when John attempts a (very) public suicide. The movie remembers that our favourite songs often come from painful places, and it makes sure we remember it as well.
Feelings over facts
Most biopics about musicians tend to mess with both truth and timelines, but often filmmakers attempt to stay true to the general order in which songs were released.
‘Rocketman’ cares only glancingly about either, as it makes clear with its opening sequence, which finds John in a bright orange, sequined, devil outfit walking in slow motion toward what we assume is a stage. That is, until he kicks the door open and is in a 12-step meeting.
The movie is filled with surreal fantasy sequences that elevate the mood in any particular moment. During John’s debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, he and the audience literally are lifted off their feet and begin floating above the floor for a while. Add on the fact that much of the movie is a jukebox musical, and it’s not surprising that one of the first scenes finds John as a child, his parents and his grandmother all singing parts of ‘I Want Love,’ which he and Bernie Taupin didn’t write until 2001.
The ultimate result is the movie feels like John’s life, which is more effective than seeing a decades-long career compressed into two hours. As John himself wrote, the point was to “make something that was like my life: chaotic, funny, mad, horrible, brilliant and dark. It’s obviously not all true, but it’s the truth.”
Taron Egerton actually sings
In some ways, this might be the most important aspect of the movie. When Rami Malek won the Oscar for his portrayal of Mercury, a common criticism was that all the actor did was wear fake teeth and lip sync. This isn’t fully true, of course, and Malek is a lauded actor. But there is something lacking when an actor mimes singing, rather than actually doing it.
Egerton, the ‘Kingsman’ actor who shines in the role of John, sings every song here. The importance of this decision, which John insisted upon, adds an immediacy and emotional dynamic to these songs, even if they are covers.
Elton John’s career exists in the space where fantasy meets fact, ridiculousness meets reality and camp meets certainty. ‘Rocketman’ showed exactly that.