Rocketman (2019) by Dexter Fletcher
Review by Logan Kenny
Music biopics so rarely care about the artistry behind the music. There is little focus on the passion and process that goes into work that has altered so many people’s lives. The best examples of this genre in recent memory have devoted extensive time to the details of creation or the salvation that being able to make and play music can bring. Recent films such as Love & Mercy and Born to be Blue have focused on the interior lives of their subjects, examining their struggles and greatness – the reasons why people still love the work of Brian Wilson and Chet Baker to this day. For major studio releases such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, there is no interest in anything beyond the iconography that these performers created. Rhapsody and Rocketman do not show any focus towards the wonders and struggles of the creative endeavour, nor do they show any respect to the jukebox songs they blast out on their speakers. Watching Rocketman without any knowledge or appreciation of the songs on display would leave you devoid of feeling towards the reasons they were written, the satisfaction of finally making the melody and rhythm of a piece right, the catharsis that losing yourself in art brings to the creator and the audience.
Obviously not every movie about music needs to explicitly focus on the process, especially when it comes to Elton John. The pageantry and lavishness of his concerts and image is part of the main appeal of his entire act, arguably just as important as the songs that have connected to listeners for generations. The issue is a seeming apathy to whatever comforts music brings him, and an intense disregard for any meaning behind the work. His creative partner Bernie writes the songs just to get a record deal, and Elton produces the instrumentation because that’s what he’s good at. Elton learns how to play piano and devotes his life to it because he can; he has a talent for it, and that is seemingly enough to throw everything else aside. The film regards the creative process in a similar way as the record industry does: it’s all about numbers and image. There is only a single moment of people bonding over the beauty of creation, and it’s the closest thing the film has to an emotionally provocative sequence. The image of Jamie Bell listening through the walls to a melody that haunts him in its beauty is the only frame of the film that’s stuck with me in a positive light. It comes off wrong to me, as someone who cares deeply about music, that a biopic about one of the most acclaimed musicians of all time disregards any of the cultural, personal or aesthetic meaning of his songs and the work behind it, and instead only cares about them as a way to channel performance. The whole venture feels cynical – a way to get a compilation record on the charts and increase the streaming numbers of John’s catalogue. Even the outright jukebox musical Mamma Mia! seems to understand the persuasive power of a good pop record – it’s about the essence of providing joy to audiences and to the self through performance. None of the musical sequences featured in the film ever come close to inspiring sadness or joy or lust or lingering regret, whether they be crowds filled with empty CGI spectres or Broadway style extravaganzas. All of the power of Elton’s music and iconography has been replaced by empty spectacle, bad costumes and lacklustre covers. Even something like Moulin Rouge! (a divisive film for many) allows audiences to connect with the meaning and power of the music through framing and vocal distinctions. Every song and performance in Rocketman feels the exact same, with the differences too minimal to signify anything memorable or emotional.
I’d have less of an issue with this if the direction transcended the limitations provided, but Dexter Fletcher’s work behind the camera is appalling. The hyper-stylised renditions of certain classic tracks have all the pomp and grandiosity that you’d expect on the surface, but there’s no rhythm or imagination. All of the cuts and movements feel out of sync, and the camera never truly loses itself in the situation. It comes across as entirely hollow. Fletcher makes the most obvious choices possible in every occasion, gliding through cast off Broadway sets and imagining the most boring circumstances for every song. Each performance seems to be an excuse to fulfill another quota on the Wikipedia-page-style biopic, whether it’s the descent into addiction or the excessive flaunting of wealth. Fletcher tends to fetishise Elton’s income and all of the things it provides, saving his obvious critiques for his issues with addiction and emotional repression. Furthermore, the extravagance in the rest of the film is conveyed in large CGI pits of despair, whether it’s cheap rockets to space or the aforementioned dead crowds making lifeless noises. If the point was to reflect the hollowness of certain iconography, then Fletcher should have went all the way and adopted a Dogville style aesthetic, actively reckoning with the falsities of capitalist lavishness. It seems to me that Fletcher just doesn’t know how to utilise his environments or his performers within these spaces. The camera is positioned either too close to the actors (giving them no room for rhythm or bodily expression) or the lens is too wide (focusing on the innate flimsiness of the sets around them). The way the editing is utilised is too quick; cuts are erratic and disruptive, almost reminiscent of some of Rhapsody’s sloppy shot/reverse shot work. This is an extremely big problem in a musical where the way music is delivered is just as important as what’s featured.
The issues in direction don’t cease in the non-musical sequences, with every dialogue sequence being shot like your average cable soap opera. The camera is placed in the most basic places possible, the colour scheme is either oversaturated or just completely washed out, and any moment of “Serious Drama” is met with panning cameras and extraneous close-ups. It’s not stylish enough to succeed as camp and is too generic to properly embrace its place as an over the top melodrama. Instead, everything comes across as a weightless attempt to cover up the lack of ingenuity on the behalf of the filmmakers. Every transition is jarring, painful on the eyes and extremely tacky. They go from elongated fake one-shots, to digitally corrected colour switches, to the camera twitching its way into the next sequence. The film is ugly from beginning to end, with even the outfits that John’s known for looking like cheap knockoffs. There is no presence or panache to anything in this entire production.
This comes through in the performances as well. While Egerton avoids the Rami Malek root of attempting just a complete imitation of the real man, he gives arguably the worse performance. The major issue with his work here is the inability to stop moving his mouth. In every sequence of purely visual performing, his mouth is frantically jittering, trying to express every emotion he’s feeling by stretching his lips out. It is forgivable for a fragment of time but becomes impossible to ignore after an hour of his constant mugging. He never lets emotions wash over his face, nor provides any moments of subtle contemplation. He is at 100% all of the time, which might have worked with a director on his wavelength. Egerton completely fails to sell any of the transformative emotional moments because he delivers every line like he’s being directed to wail randomly. His pitch and intensity switches in between words, making every sentence he speaks sound jumbled and grating. Furthermore, he expresses no nuance in deeply different situations. He gives the same expressions and uses the same vocal stylings for every part of conflict in his life, whether it’s coming out to his mother, facing his absent father or confronting a dismissive boyfriend. It’s one of the worst performances of the year and it baffles me that the most Capital-A Acting is the work that many people seem to gravitate to. This issue is present in most of the other actors here, the worst being Bryce Dallas Howard, who acts every scene with an atrocious British accent and the expressions of a Looney Tunes antagonist. She handles a theoretically heartbreaking sequence (telling her son that he’ll never be loved for being gay) in a brutally obnoxious register, practically spitting venom with each syllable. She’s the prototypical view of homophobia by writers and directors who’ve never experienced it, who don’t know the nuances of what it’s like for a familial figure to disapprove of your sexuality. There’s a way to play this situation that reinforces the grief Egerton’s attempting to display in this segment, but Howard fails utterly at it, making a caricature up there with her equally dreadful performance in The Help.
To discuss the elephant in the room: the film’s portrayal of queer sexuality is lacking. While it doesn’t actively lie about the protagonist’s sexuality and rewrite history to equate queer relationships with sexually inappropriate behaviour as Bohemian Rhapsody did, that doesn’t mean Rocketman should be given a pass for the bullshit it tries to pass off as progressive. Egerton’s entire turn reeks of faux gayness, a straight man playing dressup as a gay to earn plaudits for his fearlessness. There is no soul in his turn and no soul in the framing around him, as this movie reeks of heterosexuality. It’s not impossible for straight actors and straight filmmakers to craft worthwhile queer art: Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight were largely created and acted by straight men, yet these films are honest and empathetic in their depiction of male homosexuality. There’s nuance to the dynamics, passion to the interactions, they don’t dismiss the existence of sexual desire and emotional longing. They don’t just feel like bullshit pandering to the audience of supposedly woke straight people who can’t fathom seeing a cock on screen. Rocketman is dismissive to the idea of men having sex with each other; it skirts around the subject.
There’s no revelation of desire in young Elton or a longing for a form of sexual or emotional intimacy throughout the film, there is just references to his promiscuity and one hint of two shirtless men kissing in bed. When you consider that another adult biopic from 2019 – Netflix’s The Dirt – contains its hetero rockstars engaging in multiple on-screen sex scenes, it’s hard not to want for more from our queer representation. Regardless what you think of that movie, it’s hard to argue that showing hetero sex scenes casually was the biggest controversy, or that anyone really contemplated the need for it in a Mötley Crüe biopic. It seemed fitting, natural, what they would have put into a movie about notorious deviants who fucked and snorted everything they could. Rocketman, whether intentionally or not, views the act of gay sex as something that can’t be shown, that fundamentally will not be normalised. It can’t conceive of anything more than kissing and brief fondling, despite focusing on John’s copious abuse of substances throughout his career. If the controversy was too great to risk making the movie, this reveals that the apparent progressivism of the modern climate is a facade, and that people still refuse to watch two dudes fucking each other. Its only depictions of queer love are (A) the aforementioned Bryce Dallas Howard quote about how he’ll never find love for being himself, and (B) an abusive gay relationship. The film ends before he ever meets the love of his life – that isn’t as important to this story as showing the hurt a man inflicted on him. Queer love is never as important as queer pain; you can sell the anguish of a crying member of our community better than the honesty of our love and lust.
I think the defining scene from Rocketman – something that I hope is the lasting image once the hype has faded – is a segment late in the movie in which Elton is coked out of his mind and segueing between different realities until he finds himself in the middle of an orgy. Men, women, anybody else, bodies covered in sweat and fluid writhing about on the floor. There’s little nudity and the individual figures are mostly overshadowed by close ups of Egerton’s balding scalp, but there’s enough to make everyone realise what’s happening. As he drifts across this wave of bodies, gloriously pleasuring each other, he thinks about his childhood self, the image of him as an innocent being filled with hope and joy and purity comes back to haunt him. When he is engaging in polyamorous consensual sex, he reflects about how he’s failed his younger self. This is framed as a substantial turning point; this is his incentive to change. Aside from the innately funny image of Elton thinking about himself as a kid while he is literally fucking, this scene is key to the film’s ideology in that rejecting straight society’s views of healthy sexuality is what sparks the revelation. Drug use is marketable: you can sell a movie about cocaine and painkillers. You can’t show rejection of sexual status quo without recompense. It’s the way the world works.
It’s ludicrous that this movie came out 20 years after Velvet Goldmine and Nowhere – movies that push the boundaries of American queer cinema and aren’t afraid of sex and gentalia and men lusting and loving each other. They’re melodramas, like this is aspiring to be, and they’re energetic and beautiful and show the beauty of existing as something different even if the world hates you. It saddens me that the most mainstream queer cinema we get is so sexless, so distant from the embrace of living as one of us, so acclimated to the morals of heteronormativity that it’s not even considered controversial to dismiss it. It’s heartbreaking to witness this cultural apathy towards the edges of individuality. Those movies were rejected at the time but they’ve lasted – they’ve continued to inspire young people struggling or learning how to embrace their sexualities. Velvet Goldmine is everything this could have been, something that captures the iconography of an era, that reckons with the struggle of sexuality and that eventually culminates in one of the greatest sex scenes in film history. It’s an incredibly fun, extremely campy melodrama that is extremely emotionally powerful and never once shies away from the realities of existing as something different, even if you’re a larger than life figure. I wish a fraction of that bravado and progressiveness in a studio film from 20 years ago was present here.
Finally, it’s important to talk about addiction. Rocketman is not far off from the sequence in last year’s atrocious Ben is Back in which Julia Roberts vomits after hearing her son sucked his teacher’s dick for drugs. The framing is all about the observer: it’s all about the shock value of addiction instead of the nuances of living with it. Rocketman opens and ends with emotional outbursts in counselling; it uses the arc of him falling in love with substances and trying his best to overcome his dependency on them as the throughline of the narrative. On paper, this isn’t unsalvageable, but like the framing of sex, Fletcher’s callousness and idiocy as a filmmaker neuters anything that could have been made out of it. This is the kind of film that thinks addiction is something that can be immediately cured, that all you need to do is reconcile with the trauma of your childhood and you’ll be fine. You’ll get a nice showreel at the end as well, showing how you’ve always remained clean because you fixed the problem within you. It is the addict’s responsibility and choice to do the work that stops them from continuing their poison. It has nothing to do with the brain, and John’s recovery certainly has nothing to do with the spare income he could spend on all the best rehab treatments in the world without breaking a sweat. Addiction isn’t as simple as literally hugging the imaginary image of your childhood self in order to make things okay. Your suicide attempt doesn’t result in you surviving because you can reach out to the image of innocence from your past to give you hope for the future. The desire to die and the need to relapse isn’t like this, and it’s disingenuous to portray it as that, regardless of the fantastical nature of these scenes. Addicts struggle daily without support or understanding, let alone compassion. Selling to an audience of the ignorant continues the stigma that it’s just as simple as overcoming a trauma to end your need to abuse. Audiences want to believe that things are easy, that the complexities of the brain and its trauma can be sorted in two hours, that we can make a happy ending without hard work. You can’t sell an ideal aspirational image that’s nuanced; it’s hollow marketing designed to make middle aged people cry and leave you going home thinking that everything’s perfect. Him being alive and clean now isn’t enough, there’s always gotta be something more. It’s never enough to tell the truth; to be quite honest, I’m tired of all the lies.
Elton John doesn’t need to worry about how his image is portrayed. He’s fine regardless of what this shows or how this reflects on him. The young queer viewers out there, however, deserve better. They deserve better from movies that care not about expressing anything about what it’s like to live and love, that only care about image to a world that’ll hate them regardless. Rocketman has the same energy as your local bank putting up a rainbow flag outside its branch for Pride Month, while keeping their money far away from the homeless queer and trans people who need it. It has the same energy of every supposed progressive who wants you to know they voted for gay marriage, while being made uncomfortable by a trans woman talking too loudly about the rights she doesn’t have. It’s the kind of film that’d take up shop in Stonewall to hype up album sales. There is nothing to this movie that represents what it’s like to grow up, exist, love, fuck, cry, struggle, grieve or embrace being who you are. It is all facade, all meaningless. I hope one day, audiences realise that they deserve more than this. Until then, what the fuck are we gonna do?