OK, let’s go ahead and cut directly to what everyone wants to know about Rocketman: How does it compare to last year’s Oscar shocker Bohemian Rhapsody? Well, to put it plainly, Rocketman is the superior movie in every single aspect. It is the more unique film, features better performances (acting and musical), explores its main character more deeply and effectively, and uses its soundtrack to greater effect. In short, director Dexter Fletcher — who also partially directed Bohemian Rhapsody — proves that he is more than capable of directing a musical biopic that is not paint-by-number so long as he’s not being asked to pick up the pieces of a Bryan Singer-led disaster.
Rocketman shares more of its DNA with Broadway musicals than the typical feature film musical biopics (e.g. Walk the Line, Ray). Fletcher’s decision to present this story as a musical makes it stand apart from everything else in a genre that was mocked and satirized by John C. Reilly for being overly formulaic way back in in 2007! And by fusing elements of fantasy with traditional Hollywood musicals, the end product feels like an enjoyable fusion of Elton John’s life and music with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.
The burden of Rocketman’s success lies squarely on the shoulders of Taron Egerton who is tasked with the seemingly impossible feat of acting AND singing like Elton John. Egerton had thankfully proven himself worthy of the singing role by brilliantly covering John’s “I’m Still Standing” in the 2016 animated film Sing — a song he reprises once more in this film. While his singing is unquestionably impressive, it is Egerton’s dramatic moments that should earn him awards nominations later this year. It is an impressively dynamic performance that begins with the sheepishness of young Reginald Dwight, escalates to the flamboyance of peak Elton John, and crashes with the burnout of a lost superstar who struggles with the ability to find love for himself and from others. It is a testament to Egerton that the only piece of the film which felt somewhat flat was the beginning moments in which he was not involved but thankfully saves by an impromptu killer musical number set to the rock-n-roller “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” This is a breakthrough performance for Egerton who had previously proven himself as a serviceable actor but should now find himself on a whole new level.
The musical format allows Fletcher to keep John’s music front and center through the entirety of the runtime. This was similarly attempted in Bohemian Rhapsody but felt painfully forced due to that film’s traditional approach to a dramatic biopic. Whereas in Bohemian it was wholly unnecessary to have Queen music playing while characters walked across a street, in Rocketman every song has a purpose and often times the lyrics serve as narration to the events unfolding on the screen in ways similar to 2007’s Across the Universe. In fact, one of the film’s most poignant moments centers on Elton’s relationship to songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and is conveyed entirely through the performance of one of his most popular songs.
Rocketman is as unique as the man whose story it is telling. It is saddening and painful but all the while being vibrant and flamboyant. The music serves as the heartbeat of the film dictating not just the pace, but the events and narrative as well. Fans of Elton John will surely be tapping their feet with smiles on their faces. And those looking simply for a good film will have found one with a potential Oscar-winning performance.