Rocketman, a biographical film about Elton John which takes full control of the color wheel and coats it in feathers and sequins, started showing at FilmScene last Friday. The film, directed by Dexter Fletcher and starring Taron Egerton as John, poignantly shows audiences what it looks like for a rockstar to be put under too much pressure by himself, his fans and his creative colleagues. Alongside these difficulties, John explores and comes to terms with his sexuality. However, I found the presentation of John’s music to be a little out of order and on-the-nose.
The film moves through time more or less chronologically. An adult Elton John is telling the story of his life in group therapy, starting at his childhood. As he tells his story, we occasionally catch up with him in the present moment, but otherwise we see him grow from boyhood. His personality is repressed by his parents, and to cope with this, he sings and learns to play the piano.
As he finds out he can pour himself into a song, he sings some of the highlights of his own future discography during significant moments in his young life. The movie then presents itself as a jukebox musical, featuring only Elton John’s most popular songs and creating a narrative through them.
“The Bitch is Back” is the first song a young John sings, presented almost like he spontaneously created it. “I Want Love” is dramatically sung by his entire family, including his grandmother, the only real support system John has growing up. He plays “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” as a tween.
The jukebox musical style didn’t work for a biographical film: Why can’t we see the songs he played when he first learned to play the piano or the first tune he played in a bar for an audience? These scenes would have made me feel connection to John as an artist, now and in his youth. When I expected more of a closer look at John as a person, the unrealistic performances took me out of the story. I don’t feel like the viewer could get to know John as a child, though the non-musical plot laid significant groundwork for the rest of the film.
The conceit might have worked better had it been illuminated by the knowledge the adult John in group therapy has — if he took time to tell the viewer why these songs would have meant so much to him decades before. Once they are written, after he meets his lyricist, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), it would feel more appropriate to place their significance onto his childhood. John never wrote the lyrics to him songs but still collaborated strongly with Taupin (he was much more capable on the sheet music side of songwriting). It felt as though the songs were assigned to scenes without showing the audience why it mattered.
The movie begins to shine once John is an adult in his life’s story; it becomes spectacular. As soon as John’s personality is welded to his music and he starts to work toward fame, I felt like I was seeing John, or that he was in the theatre watching with me, commenting alongside the film and telling me everything.
At John’s first headlining show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, we first see him jumping up from his piano — kicking off the ground, so his body is horizontal while he plays — an iconic trick which will continue doing throughout his career. In this moment, he and his audience levitate together.
As John sees the audience and himself floating, he looks in awe while the audience doesn’t notice the change in gravity — they are just focused on the sound. It felt surreal to watch; I am certain I wasn’t the only one with chills. John was, literally, on the same level as the people who understood him and his music, finally. It was a bridge between musician and listener perfectly shown on screen.
The use of color in Rocketman, by production designers Peter Francis and Marcus Rowland, is the running thread that compelled me most. When we meet John as a child, he is at home with parents who don’t hate him, but don’t enjoy him either. His home is filled with pale greens, yellows and muted browns. They are grounding colors and, given John’s fashion choices through his years of rising up in the pop genre, very suppressive.
As soon as John finds his groove and places himself in the music industry, he breaks out of this scheme and starts to find his own color. He wears neon colored glasses with beads on them, baseball uniforms with bright red and blue, orange feathers on gigantic wings which strap to his back. Hot pink, fireworks embroidered on a suit, cowboy hats, jewel tones. Julian Day, costume designer for the film, put Egerton in fashions that break John out of the scope of his limiting childhood home.
Whenever he comes home or sees his parents, they are in the same pale colors, as is the setting. John, refusing to retreat back into a quieter life he was once forced to have, still wears blinding colors in a startling contrast.
What makes Rocketman monumental for queer people is the care John’s sexuality is given from his childhood and into adulthood. Viewers witness John losing his virginity to his manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), and it is clear in Egerton’s acting that intimacy with a man allowed John to further fall into himself.
The scene wasn’t censored as queer sex scenes have often been in cinema. It made their romance whole and candid, real for the audience to witness. The only other thing I could have possibly desired from John’s romantic life is to see him meet his husband, David Furnish, though they wouldn’t begin their relationship until 1993.
Though access to a completely realistic view of Elton John’s life is limited, his heavy involvement in Rocketman can give any audience member peace of mind. We are seeing his life as he wants us to see it — and as he must, to some extent, see it himself as he reminisces, fantasy and all. For that, the film is a valuable resource as a dive into the development of one of the world’s all-time best-selling artists.