The comparisons are inevitable, so I’ll start with the obvious question: is Rocketman a better movie than Bohemian Rhapsody? And, objectively speaking, Rocketman is the superior film, from pretty much every aspect and angle — except, perhaps, for the featured music itself.
But is Rocketman as enjoyable to watch as Bohemian Rhapsody was? That’s a very different question, and it really depends on where your previously existing loyalties and tastes lie. For instance, I was pretty fundamentally disappointed in Bohemian Rhapsody, but still found the music irresistible, because I have long connected to the music of Queen. By contrast, as much as I have long been a massive fan of many classic rock bands and artists from the seventies, I was only introduced to the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Heart, Supertramp, The Moody Blues, even Queen by my parents, none of whom had any Elton John Records.
So, for me personally, this is the thing with Rocketman: I never got any introduction to his back catalogue in my youth, and so I have no more than a cursory familiarity with Elton John’s music. This has an effect on how much I can enjoy the film, and I am confident that any bona fide fan of Elton John will absolutely love it.
The thing is, if a movie about Queen and Freddie Mercury had been made as well as this movie about Elton John, then Bohemian Rhapsody would have been the best of both worlds. As it happened, audiences loved Bohemian Rhapsody way more than I did, launching it to massive global success the likes of which Rocketman could never hope for, thanks to the far more enduring nostalgia for their music and for a transformative performance by the star.
I would be hard pressed to call Taron Egerton’s performance as Elton John “transformative.” He doesn’t even look that much like the guy, honestly. As opposed to Rami Malik looking incredibly like Freddie Mercury but failing to get very deep into his character, however, what Egerton manages is to get into the spirit of Elton John as a character, which is frankly the makings of a film with far more successful execution.
And then there is another truly key difference: in Bohemian Rhapsody, the singing of the character Freddie Mercury had the voices of Rami Malek and Canadian singer Marc Martel seamlessly blended with that of real-life Freddie Mercury. In Rocketman, which is a true musical somewhat in the spirit of Across the Universe (except in that movie the story is entirely fictional and in this one it’s based on real life), Taron does all of his own singing — and he’s really good. Some say he’s better than Elton John himself.
The comparisons with and connections to Bohemian Rhapsody don’t end there, given that Rocketman’s director, Dexter Fletcher, is the one who, uncredited, was brought in to finish up Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired due to “erratic behavior.” It could be argued that what is good about Bohemian Rhapsody can be credited to Fletcher, and here he’s officially given credit for the entire film.
Him and, perhaps, editor Chris Dickens. Biopics are notoriously difficult to feel like they sufficiently tell a story in the space of just a couple of hours, but the largely stylized nature of Rocketman, combined with it being a musical, makes it feel a lot more natural to present the life of a character in a series of vignettes, which cover many years of a person’s life.
And with Richard Madden as Elton’s sometime lover and manager; Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mother; and particularly Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin, Elton’s longtime lyricist, the supporting cast is well rounded with competent players. All of them do a bit of their own singing, always to songs from the Elton John back catalogue, and some transitions from dialogue to singing are smoother than others. There are sporadic moments when the narrative of Rocketman sags a little. But, they are always followed by yet another fabulous sequence that easily wins you over.
The story is told in flashback style, with Elton in full “Elton regalia” attending a twelve-step program meeting, telling his story. I often thought about how Elton was dominating the meeting discussion to tell a story that was being turned into this movie, but I guess that’s just my OCD talking. Let someone else talk, man! But, this movie isn’t any of their stories. And over the course of the film, Elton systematically sheds the plumage of his costume, until we are finally seeing the essence of him as just a deeply flawed person with addiction issues. There is a moment where he literally hugs his inner child, and that’s a little corny, but we can live with it.
Rocketman does do a nice job of representing Elton John’s gayness — a pretty sharp contrast to a major sticking point with critics of Bohemian Rhapsody. Rocketman is quite frank about Elton’s sexuality without ever getting especially explicit, proving that you don’t have to whitewash over key elements of a person’s identity in order to make them relatable to mass audiences.
All that said, there is still a slight hollowness to Rocketman, a feeling that, in spite of the movie’s overall finesse, we still don’t get very deeply into who Elton John really was and is. There is plenty of spectacle here, and it is eminently entertaining. On the other hand, it could be argued this is just the nature of biopic films — if you want to get further into the weeds of a person’s psyche, two hours just isn’t enough time — read his autobiography (there’s one coming in October 2019).
What I liked most about Rocketman was that, although it’s an “authorized” biopic, it seems clear Elton John is interested in owning his mistakes. This is a man with addiction issues that nearly did him in, and the movie makes that very clear. And that’s also what makes it unusually uplifting for such stories: it didn’t do him in — he survived, and he still lives: this actually has a happy ending, a superstar self-actualized after a satisfying redemption arc. It’s the kind of story made for Hollywood, only this time it’s a fantastical reflection of real life.