This is the second big budget biopic of a major flamboyant 1970s male rock musician who eventually came out as gay to be released within the last year, and while the differences between Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman are notable, the overall impressions are so similar that the differences will be neglible over time. In that regard, the Freddy movie wins because it came out first and made a ton of money, thus partly exhausting the market for this kind of movie. The gap in box office receipts may also have something to do with the fact that Mercury died 20 years ago and Elton John, played here by Taron Egerton, is still very much with us—in fact, the release of the film, which his husband produced and he oversaw, coincides with his big final world tour.
First off, I belong to that slice of society who believes Elton John is a genius, that he was the respresentative singles artist of the 70s; and while I haven’t really listened to him with much attention since the late 70s, I still feel he has as much to contribute to popular culture as any man his age. But the point of the film is not to reinforce any of those notions; rather, it wants to set the record straight before John becomes a fond memory, and to a certain extent it’s brutal in its depiction of his addictions and insecurities—much more so than Bohemian Rhapsody was with regard to Mercury. Both men were central to the glam rock ethos, even if they weren’t necessarily considered the epitome of the form. What they shared and derived from the genre was an affection for camp for its own sake and scrutiny of the rock life as their subject matter. Bohemian Rhapsody, with its endless stream of behind-the-scenes nudges and mouth-openers, is a truer testament to that ideal, while Rocketman, which is basically musical theater, is closer to the feeling of the ideal.
Consequently, the songs, which everyone knows, aren’t always performed as songs, but rather presented as production numbers, muddying their purpose, which is to clarify and intensify certain emotional episodes in John’s life. They don’t appear in chronological order and sometimes feel oddly misinterpreted by the production team. The songs are as entertaining as always, but they add less to the story than they would have had their progeny been elaborated upon, as the songs in Bohemian were. And while childhood trauma is the life blood of Hollywood biopics, young Reginald Dwight’s is presented as if he’d been born into a Ken Russell production. It’s old-fashioned filmmaking, thus spoiling the nostalgia potential by doubling down on it. The good stuff, the stuff we didn’t really know that much about—like John’s teen career backing black American musicians on tour in the U.K.—also has a layer of fantasy to it, but the kick of discovery makes it work.
And the love story at the center of movie, between John and his straight lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), is so blandly platonic that you wonder if Taupin might have felt short-changed. He comes across as a really dull boy compared to his writing partner. Some may complain that we learn nothing of their writing process, but exploring those sort of mysteries are not the film’s mission, which is to sensationalize a life that its protagonist was never able to handle. Mercury died of AIDS, cut down in his prime by a disease he caught. He never had the chance to burn out. Elton John, on the other hand, overcame his demons a long time ago, and has cruised ever since. Rocketman, as entertaining as it is, is nothing more than a victory lap, a means of showing his fans that they were right to love him all along, even if they stopped listening a long time ago.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
Rocketman home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 Paramount Pictures