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Non-Review Review: Rocketman

As has been noted, the iconic Elton John song that inspired the film is titled Rocket Man, while the film itself is simply Rocketman.

The missing space is an intriguing stylistic choice, given that the film is obviously designed to evoke Elton John’s beloved contemplative ballad about space-age truckers. What purpose does the omission of that space serve? What is gained by contracting the song to create a single-word title for the biographical feature film. Having watched the film, it feels like the missing space might have been lost as an inadvertent consequence of a thorough find-and-delete of anything resembling subtext from the screenplay.

Fancy, that.

To be clear, this isn’t entirely a flaw with Rocketman. Musicals are fundamentally designed to render subtext as supratext, to literalise and articulate the themes and ideas and emotions underscoring a character or plot. By their nature, musicals feature characters very theatrically expressing their innermost feelings and desires directly to the audience through the medium of song and dance. Subtlety is not necessary in this context, and could even become something of a hindrance. A musical – especially a jukebox musical like this – is narrative as stadium rock.

The musical sequences in Rocketman capture this beautifully, and are the film’s strongest attribute. The movie just has trouble turning the volume down in the scenes between those numbers.

Key details.

The musical sequences in Rocketman are the moments the film comes alive, with the film seguing gracefully into fantasy on several occasions. These are good old-fashioned set pieces. Director Dexter Fletcher consciously dials up the stylisation during these sequences. Some of the techniques explicitly recall Bohemian Rhapsody, such as a CGI-assisted twirl around a grand piano as John performs Pinball Wizard while transforming like a hybrid of a chameleon and a peacock.

However, some of Fletcher’s stylistic influences are consciously more old-fashioned. For I’m Still Standing, Fletcher gradually pulls the character from his stint in rehabilitation into the iconic eighties music video, complete with blurry standard definition to provide texture. For Honky Cat, Fletcher eases into an homage to the old-school studio musical numbers as John dances and sings his way through an entire celebrity arc in the time it takes him to cross a single studio.

Dear John.

These sequences have a great deal more confidence and more comfort than anything in Bohemian Rhapsody, which was content to play the greatest hits over montages or as part slavishly recreated live set pieces. Indeed, the closest thing that Bohemian Rhapsody has to any of these playful sequences is the spectacularly ill-advised sequence in which Freddie Mercury’s expression of his sexual identity is shot like something from a moral panic video and set to Another One Bites the Dust.

While all the musical numbers in Rocketman are impressive, the most emotionally effective are those that are kept squarely low key. It is very hard to literalise the creative process, to demonstrate how an artist conjures words or images from the world. It is particularly difficult for film to do that with music, as Bohemian Rhapsody demonstrated with the awkward staged materialisation of the title song over the course of the film.

Working off spec.

Rocketman builds a few songs across its runtime in that manner – Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word and the title track – but it does a much better job of conveying the way in which a song comes to life with Your Song. Over the space of a scene, John goes from idly humming and mumbling the words to hitting notes on a piano and building a rhythm section. While obviously still streamlined and smoothed over to fit the needs of the narrative, it feels like a more honest depiction of creative work than anything in Bohemian Rhapsody, mainly by suggesting that it is work.

The best moments in the film are clever stagings of familiar tunes; the bitter and distant inhabitants of a small family household splitting the verses and choruses of I Want Love as an expression of deep seated malaise, the alienation of catch-and-release medication-and-hospitalisation set to the sounds of Rocket Man, the triumphant affirmation of I’m Still Standing recreated with just enough verve that it doesn’t feel like cynical pandering to the audience watching at the Cannes premiere only a few hundred meters from where the original video was shot.

Flights of fantasy.

The only problem is that Rocketman is more than just the sum of its musical sequences. The non-musical sequences in Rocketman often feel like they are yelling at the audience, wary that what they’re saying might be misunderstood or misconstrued. There is no small irony in this, given how many of the film’s beats are standard rock star biography formula; the sleazy exploitative manager, the troubled home life, the addiction problems, the unhappy marriage, the collapse and redemption. Audiences know these structures, they do not need them explained repeatedly.

Rocketman is a film that never leaves anything implied when it can state it outright. This is most obvious with Reginald Dwight’s transformation into Elton John. “I wish I was someone else,” young Reginald Dwight confesses to his grandmother early in the film as his parents argue. Another singer helpfully advises him, “You gotta kill the person you were supposed to be to become the person you want to be.” John literally and figuratively strips down from his theatrical stagewear as he bears his soul in rehab, in case the audience does not understand that he is stripping his persona.

He’s a gown man.

Towards the end of the film, Elton finds himself confronted by stand-ins for various characters from the rest of the film, psychological sounding boards that show up to articulate the film’s themes and ideas. This builds to a moment when Bernie Taupin shows up to reassure him, “You write records that make millions of people happy. You just need to figure out who you are and learn to love yourself.” This neatly completes John’s arc and saving the movie the trouble of having to communicate that indirectly.

In some ways, this is the logical end point of the sort of theme-as-dialogue approach to writing that Christopher and Jonathan Nolan codified with their work on films like Memento, Batman Begins or The Prestige. However, it is absurdly heightened, to the point that characters exposit their entire arcs in awkward chunks. After discovering his wife his cheating on him, John’s father makes sure to explain very bluntly, “You tied me down with that kid, and I finally have a reason to leave.”

He’s Been Elton.

To be fair to Rocketman, it is very hard to make a musical biographic film after Walk Hard so thoroughly and effectively spoofed the form by heightening its tropes to an absurd degree. There are points at which Rocketman almost seems a parody itself. The film establishes John’s sexuality by having a secondary character bluntly state in the middle of conversation, “Does it matter that you’re a [gay]?” Similarly, when trying to choose a last name for his stage persona, Reginald doesn’t just have a picture of the Beatles to hand, but a stage light focused on the face of John Lennon.

Still, the obvious point of comparison for a film like Rocketman is Bohemian Rhapsody, given that they share a director. Rocketman fares the better of the two, perhaps because Fletcher was able to build the film from the ground up rather than having to work as a salvage team; Rocketman incorporates music better, has a clearer arc, and offers a much stronger handling of its lead’s sexuality. The script could have used more polish, but Rocketman is a much better example of what Bohemian Rhapsody wanted to be. Which might suggest Bohemian Rhapsody‘s modest ambitions.

Rocketman may not leave the upper atmosphere, but it doesn’t crash and burn either. There’s a lot to like in the film’s more musical moments, but it doesn’t seem entirely sure how to best fill the space between the notes.

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