The Movie Musical Project is a roughly bi-weekly essay series exploring the best and worst of movie musical filmmaking, with an eye to deriving principles from them that can be applied to a new wave of movie musicals. Join us. We brought wine.
I should preface all of this by saying that in my opinion, Rocketman is one of the flat-out best musicals of the 2010s, as well as a deceptively brilliant execution of the movie musical as a format.
Which is odd, because at first glance it feels like it shouldn’t be. After all, this is yet another rock musician biopic that hits effectively all the story beats of the musician biopic formula, and was not just consulted on but in fact produced by its subject through his personal studio, Rocket Pictures. What this initial impression largely fails to account for, however, is that Elton John has always had an uncanny eye for collaborators.
In this case, the most significant of these is Lee Hall, the acclaimed English playwright and screenwriter behind both the film Billy Elliot and the libretto for its stage musical adaptation, which is where he first worked with John.
There are plenty of places where Rocketman goes decidedly right, but the main one that distinguishes it from more generic recitations of the same basic career arc like Bohemian Rhapsody is the sheer talent and experience of its screenwriter. Hall has worked extensively in both film and theatre, and has a talent for song-spotting that seem to escape the writers of most jukebox biographies. In this case, even the fact of the film being produced by its subject is an asset; by many reports, meddling by the surviving band members with hired-gun screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s adaptation seriously hindered the storytelling, whereas it seems as if John chose Hall because he genuinely trusted him to do an excellent job and then just let him get on with it.
The comparison with Bohemian Rhapsody is unavoidable, not just because the the films were released within a year of each other but because Rocketman’s director, Dexter Fletcher, was brought in after signing onto Rocketman but before beginning photography to finish Rhapsody uncredited after that film’s credited director, Brian Singer, became an insuperable liability due to his chronic absences and the multiple credible accusations of sexual abuse brought against him (and for the record, it appears to have been the former rather than the latter that convinced 20th Century Fox to finally push Singer out, in case one were to mistakenly suspect that moral scruples had much to do with it).
Fletcher, a former character actor, was the third director to be associated with Elton John’s biopic during its nearly 20-year history (the second, incidentally, was Michael Gracey before he had helmed his first big hit, The Greatest Showman), but again John’s choice seems to have been right on the money, and he appears to have placed a great deal of trust in Fletcher’s talents as well as Hall’s, as we shall see.
For my money, the result is a masterpiece.
In the introduction to this series, I identified singing in musicals as a magical realist device, a statement that I realize probably requires rather more explanation than I gave it. This is complicated by the fact that there has always been and likely will always be heated debate about what works even “count” as magical realist and what characteristics of the style should be regarded as compulsory. Thus, whether or not Rocketman is a magical realist film is not a topic I will be addressing now or perhaps ever. I will argue, however, that it successfully uses multiple magical realist devices in conveying both its narrative and the basic conceit of singing in drama.
This begins at the very top of the film, where the title card is shattered by Elton (in a career-best performance by Taron Egerton) bursting through a set of double-doors in a resplendent winged demon costume complete with sequins and heart-shaped pink sunglasses, only for the film to reveal that he has just walked into a rehab center support meeting. This technically deviates from the characteristics of magical realism, since we do ultimately get an explanation as to how he came to arrive there in such an outlandish getup, but until the end of the film we are asked to just accept that this is just how he walked into rehab. It is a mystery, but one that is meant to be experienced rather than solved.
More straightforwardly magical realist is the moment a few minutes later when he begins to talk about his life to the support group and starts to sing as his younger self appears to him and the group to usher them through a portal into the past.
Figures from his past appear like this without explanation throughout the support group scenes in the film, but the support group don’t freeze in time like they would in a movie musical using the excuse of explicit fantasy to justify the songs (e.g. Chicago), nor do they react in the way one would in real life to such an impossible occurrence; rather, they react in the way that characters in magical realist stories do. They don’t ignore the impossibilities before them, but they do listen quietly and respectfully as if all of this is just a long-winded and stylish way of sharing in the support group, which, of course, it is. It never receives an explanation, nor does it need one, and we spend the overwhelming majority of the film in the vision of the past that the child ushers the characters (and, of course, us) into.
Of course, this version of the past is not meant to be literal (the writer and director have been very explicit about their intent in this regard in interviews), rather it evokes an almost dreamlike memory, and thus also the sense of heightened reality that I have repeatedly asserted is essential to producing an environment in which theatre songs can thrive on film. Of course, magical realism calls this “heightened awareness of mystery,” in which certain expectations of narrative logic and chronology need to be left at the door.
Rocketman accomplishes this in a variety of ways, but given that its flashback narrative is broadly still chronological, one of the most interesting ones is in its song placement. The song spotting in this film is impeccable, as I’ll discuss in a moment, but importantly it is executed without regard for the dates on which any of the songs involved were written or released. One of the first musical numbers in the film features a young Elton’s family members singing parts of the song “I Want Love” from different rooms of their home (a Fletcher addition). Far from an early Elton John song, however, this is one from the 2000s that just happens to be emotionally and thematically resonant with the drama happening at this point in the narrative, fudging with the implicit chronology without resorting to the conventional cross-cutting tomfoolery of many biopic narratives. This happens a great deal throughout the film, and while it might throw some of John’s more die-hard fans for a loop, it accomplishes exactly what it means to.
Another clever way in which the film does naughty things with time is its handling of scene transitions later in the story after John develops his drug and alcohol problems. It is a screenwriting dictum that when we cut away from a character, the audience can assume that the character will continue doing whatever they were last doing until the film cuts back and we are otherwise informed. The characters, of course, don’t notice this gap in time.
Rocketman’s simple but effective use of this is to have the character of Elton explicitly experience these cuts as the sort of “lost time” familiar to addicts of multiple stripes. One scene will cut to another a week later, and Elton will look around, bewildered, for a moment before having to come to grips with his new surroundings. In this way the film implicitly points out that such cuts in time, however accustomed to them we are, are in their own way “impossible” in the same way as the singing. The heightened reality ends up affecting not just the images conveyed by the filmmaking, but the filmmaking itself.
The portrayal of Elton’s parents is firmly caricatured, consistent with the concept of this being a memory of them and their failings rather than a literal portrayal, and the consistent layer of unreality they contribute to lets the film get away with a great many flourishes, as in one time lapse where a ten-year-old Elton climbs through a gap in a fence midway through a rousing rendition of “Saturday’s Alright For Fighting” and emerges as a fully-grown Taron Egerton just in time for the best dance sequence of the movie.
This number is also the occasion for some of Fletcher’s best filmmaking in the entire production, as the number comprises one simulated single-take in which the camera swoops in and among the dancers, pulling and pushing with the choreography in the manner of the very best movie musical staging. The sequence feels kinetic in a way that most modern movie musicals, with their frantic fast-cutting, can only dream of, and remains my favorite of the film to revisit on purely aesthetic grounds.
Fletcher’s deft hand can also be felt in the “Honky Cat” number, in which Elton and his lover-stroke-manager John Reid (played by the always improbably handsome Richard Madden) run through what in any other film would be a simple montage of enjoying the finer things in life. In this case, the sequence shifts from semi-realistic settings to self-consciously stagey sets and brazenly representative devices so smoothly that it’s difficult to see the join unless you’re consciously looking for it (which of course I, as an inveterate killjoy, usually am).
In a similar way, the mad energy of the brief “Pinball Wizard” sequence takes what would otherwise be a simple time-lapse and makes it a thrilling set-piece, the camera spinning wildly around Elton at the piano as he abruptly shifts between ever more extravagant costumes at what we are meant to infer are multiple concerts, experienced on a near-permanent cocaine buzz.
This approach reaches its culmination in the sequence set to the title song, which begins with a suicidal Elton finding his younger self singing to him at the bottom of a pool and ends with him at a massive arena flying into the sky with rocket boots, a bravura stretch of film that manages to convey everything it needs to without having to directly say any of it.
Not all of the film’s best moments require so much spectacle, however; the “Tiny Dancer” sequence manages to perfectly capture the (god, I hope) universal introvert experience of playing self-pitying music in your head at parties, while the film’s use of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” made me literally gasp in the theater.
Of course, a great deal of that is down to Lee Hall’s song spotting, which consistently manages to be both apropos and surprising. Even if we did not know that he had written a musical theater libretto before, his obvious skill here would clinch it. Despite Bernie Taupin’s lyrics often being notoriously diffuse, Hall consistently manages to find the most relevant sections of lyrics in terms of both content and tone. Where the tone needs to better suit the drama, Matthew Margeson’s lovely orchestral arrangements consistently split the difference. In no place, to my recollection, does the film encounter the perennial jukebox musical difficulty of arriving at a scene crying out for a song only to find that the artist’s back catalog does not feature an appropriate single.
This is all the more remarkable for the fact that the most pivotal scene of the film is not a musical number – the final scene of the support group framing device features various figures of Elton’s past arguing with him and each other in the middle of the meeting in unabashedly theatrical style, but Hall writes the scene such that the lack of music conveys a sense of straight-talking honesty rather than a damning absence, as Elton tells these remembered versions of his parents what he wishes he could have told them in life.
The emotional arc of the movie, in which Elton comes out as gay early on but is unable to find happiness until he can overcome the self-hatred that he learned through his childhood, is hardly the most complex emotional journey in the history of fiction, but it doesn’t need to be. The entire film is an exercise in doing simple things remarkably well. For as much as it hits all the beats of the musician biopic formula, it does so with a style and panache that renders nearly all of them fresh and exciting in a way they haven’t been in decades.
The film, despite critical acclaim, did not receive the awards attention accrued by the vastly inferior Bohemian Rhapsody, at least in part by virtue of coming out in a far better year for movies overall, in part I suspect for being far more openly queer, but also in part by dint of the fact that it is a musical. This is a shame, since the fact of it being a musical and the particular ways in which it uses the devices available to it as a musical are precisely what elevates it above the broadly mediocre subgenre of musician biopics.
Rocketman is a standout in every genre it occupies and, moreover, just a damn good musical. With the increasing number of movie musicals slated for production and release in the near future, I hold out hope that we’ll see another movie musical of this caliber within the next couple of years, but realistically, I think it’s gonna be a long, long time.
EDIT: An earlier version of this essay suggested Fletcher’s uncredited work on Bohemian Rhapsody as a factor in his hiring for Rocketman. In fact, Fletcher finished Rhapsody between being signed to Rocketman and beginning photography on Rocketman. Big thanks to fellow Rocketman fan @Obla_da_obla_di on Twitter for this correction, as well as the information that the I Want Love interpolation was a Fletcher addition!