Although ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ rocked the box office last year, it left many (myself included) wondering if the music biopic genre had any juice left in it. No matter the subject, it seems that every popular musician has lived the same life: tragic loss early in life, bad parents, substance abuse, sudden epiphanies that inspire their greatest hits, the list of cliches seems to go on forever. It certainly can make for a good dramatic tale, but when fed to audiences again and again, each time under the guise of a different artist, the similarities in content and structure become impossible to ignore.
The genre seemed reached its peak in the mid-2000’s with heavy Oscar contenders like ‘Ray’ and ‘Walk the Line’ doing the music biopic formula better than ever. Just a couple of years later the 2007 Jake Kasdan-directed/Judd Apatow-produced genre-parody ‘Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story’ hit theaters with a resounding thud. Though it initially failed to find its audience, ‘Walk Hard’ has become a beloved classic by many in the years since. It not only perfectly lampoons the entire music-biopic genre’s formula in a way that exposes its faults for all to see, but also happens to be an excellent and surprisingly moving addition to that genre in its own right. It may have taken the better part of a decade to do so, but ‘Walk Hard’ seems to have seriously crippled the music biopic genre, with any new entry being met with mocking comparisons to the 2007 parody. Yet the formula has stayed the same.
So how do you lift a film above a genre that’s drowning in a pool of cliches? Easy. You embrace those cliches like old friends. You loosely follow what’s been done before, but throw in surreal and colorful fantasy sequences. And to top it all off, you make it a damn musical. Dexter Fletcher’s ‘Rocketman’ might just be the future of the music biopic genre, taking the larger-than-life Elton John and telling his story in a way that’s every bit as campy and extravagant as the man himself.
‘Rocketman’ takes you through the life of a legendary rock star in a way that you’ve never seen before, using Elton John’s own songs to weave a heightened and fantastical (if sometimes inaccurate) narrative of his rise to fame, his addiction to drugs and alcohol, and his struggle with hiding his true self from the world. We first meet Elton as a young child discovering his talents in his parent’s living room. It seems pretty stock standard at first: loving and supportive mother, distant and resentful father, an audition for a prestigious music school. There have been a couple of musical numbers so far, but nothing to write home about. I started to get a little worried, to be honest. That is, until a time-jump in the middle of “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” introduces us to our star player.
Taron Egerton first popped up on everyone’s radar as the street-urchin-turned-secret-agent Eggsy in the surprise 2015 hit ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’. Though he’s still not quite a household name, Egerton has been on the short-list for some of the most coveted roles in Hollywood. As a one-time front-runner for young Han Solo and a rumored contender for the next James Bond, it’s safe to say that he’s in high demand.
In ‘Rocketman’, Taron Egerton had his work cut out for him. In addition to portraying one of the most iconic musicians in history, he also did all of his own singing. He doesn’t always sound a dead ringer for Elton John, but he does a fantastic job singing some of John’s best songs, and some you might not be too familiar with. One standout moment is a playful duet of ‘Honky Cat’ sung by Egerton and ‘Game of Thrones’ alum Richard Madden, who plays Elton John’s abusive manager/one-time lover John Reid. Madden brings a healthy amount of charm that slowly melts away into menace as both we and Elton begin to see John Reid for the ruthless, manipulative, and abusive person he really is.
Jamie Bell, nearly two decades after ‘Billy Elliot’, plays Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s long-time collaborator and songwriter. Their brotherly relationship is the emotional core of the film, and both Bell and Egerton play it quite beautifully. They even get their own duet, a haunting and confrontational rendition of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’.
In addition to three outstanding lead performances, ‘Rocketman’ boasts a surreal and impressionist visual style never really seen before in a major studio biopic. The entire narrative is framed by several sessions of group therapy Elton attends in rehab; the film we see is the way he sees his life in his mind. This makes way for some psychedelic visual metaphors, such as Elton John singing to his younger self underwater, or a simulated nightclub orgy set to “Bennie and the Jets”. This heightened and exaggerated way of storytelling might not work for some as well as others. There are a few moments that read a little too silly or outrageous even to me. But for the most part, the film’s campy and magical energy keeps you swept off your feet.
For a while, it seemed that the music biopic genre had no life left. ‘Rocketman’ has opened up the door to a new, exciting, and imaginative ways to tell the story of some of the world’s greatest musical icons. It still remains to be seen whether or not future biopics will take cues from ‘Rocketman’, but with the recent passing of artists like David Bowie and Prince, other filmmakers would be wise to follow its lead.