File photo of Elton John (Source: Official Twitter Handle of Elton John)

Rocketman Review: Elton John Beats Queen

(Bloomberg) -- The Elton John biopic Rocketman arrives hot on the heels of last year’s staggeringly successful Bohemian Rhapsody, another movie portrait of a gay and idiosyncratically toothed pop superstar. What’s more, it’s also directed by Dexter Fletcher, who took over the reins on the Freddie Mercury film after Bryan Singer was fired a month before production wrapped. As such, comparisons between the two are inevitable.

So, the good news first: Rocketman is inestimably better. It premiered Thursday night at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival and will open in the U.S. on May 31.

The bad news is that the bar was set so low, this is modest praise, indeed. Ultimately, Rocketman remains a by-the-numbers jukebox musical that offers scant insight into its subject’s life or creativity. Whether or not it’s enjoyable depends entirely on one’s partiality for John’s music. Given the size of his fan base, odds are it’ll be a smash hit.

One fundamental difference is that John was intimately involved in the production of Rocketman, having initiated the project himself over a decade ago, through his production company, Rocket Pictures. As he has said since the beginning, he wished for a warts-and-all portrait, not a whitewashed hagiography. In other words, he wanted to avoid precisely what Bohemian Rhapsody did to poor Freddie Mercury.

Although it’s likely that the real Elton John had a few more warts than are shown in the film, the dialogue does include a fair bit of profanity, cocaine makes a couple of appearances, and there is one gay sex scene during which half of a butt cheek can briefly be glimpsed in a corner of the frame. (There’s also a supposed orgy, but that doesn’t count—it’s actually a dance sequence and everyone keeps their pants on.)

Rocketman Review: Elton John Beats Queen

This has been sufficient to earn Rocketman an R rating, though that shouldn’t prove crippling at the box office. Nothing is shown that will shock any but the most puritanical of viewers, who in any case aren’t the target audience for a film about a famously flamboyant homosexual with a fondness for sequin jumpsuits—and does anyone under the age of 17 listen to Elton John?

Rocketman opens sometime in the early 1990s as John, played by Kingsman’s Taron Egerton in a likable performance, enters rehab, hilariously wearing a bright, orange devil’s outfit with giant rhinestone horns and feathered wings. (Apparently, in real life it was a chicken costume, which would have been a tad less cinematic). He sits down in a group session and tells the story of how he hit rock bottom, starting at the very beginning: when he was five years old.

For the remaining two hours, the film works its way back to where it started, playing some two dozen of John’s biggest hits along the way. These are used in the fashion of traditional musicals, with most of the actors, including Egerton, doing their own singing. Whenever music starts playing, the film’s reality is temporarily suspended as the characters break out into extravagantly staged song and dance routines that supplement the narrative: I Want Love comments on John’s parents’ lack of affection, Honky Cat celebrates John’s move into his own house with his partner, and the titular song accompanies both his first big success and his first crash.

Rocketman Review: Elton John Beats Queen

The film purports to explore what led to John’s alcohol and drug abuse, but all it comes up with is clichés straight out of Psychology 101: Mom and dad (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) weren’t loving enough, his partner and manager John Reid (Richard Madden) didn’t truly love him, and so forth. John lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) does love him and says so repeatedly, but somehow that doesn’t factor in. Could the drugs have been a substitute for the lack of love in his life? It’d be too much of a spoiler to reveal the answer here; suffice it to say that the big emotional climax involves grown-up Elton hugging his five-year-old self.

Just as dispiriting as these cheesy platitudes is the fact that, beat by beat, the film follows the same trajectory as virtually every other movie ever made about a musician. (Check out Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story for a spot-on parody that exposes this trite, yet apparently immortal, template.) It’s not that the musician biopic is, per sea lost cause. As Todd Haynes proved with his excellent I’m Not There, in which he had six actors play fictional characters representing different stages of Bob Dylan’s creative career, there is ample opportunity to revive this most moribund of genres.

Except that the ticket sales for I’m Not There amounted to $11.7 million, little more than half its budget. Bohemian Rhapsody was not only a travesty in terms of filmmaking and a deplorable exercise in biographical revisionism, its original director was fired midway through the shoot and was later accused of sexually assaulting minors in a damning exposé (never mind that rumors had been circulating for years). Still, the film became the highest-grossing biopic of all time, earning a whopping $903 million at the box office. It won four Oscars, more than any other film from 2018.

With such precedents, the motivation for studios to break out from the template is essentially nonexistent. If Rocketman ends up turning a profit comparable to that of its predecessor, the pop star biopic may well become the new superhero movie.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.