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This past semester has just been exhaustingly busy, so I haven’t watched a lot of historical films, much less had any time to blog about them. But I did get an opportunity to watch Rocketman (2019, dir. Dexter Fletcher) recently and found its approach to historical storytelling interesting. So I wanted to make a quick post about it.

The film focuses on the life of Elton John from his childhood in post-war Britain to his getting sober in the 1980s. Between those two point, he of course became one of the biggest musical artists of the century (he is currently the fourth-best-selling performer, behind the Beatles, Rihanna, and Michael Jackson). The film opens with John (Taron Edgerton), dressed in a devil stage costume, walking into something like an AA meeting (but with a therapist). His conversation (mostly a monologue, really) in the group serves as the frame-tale for his life story, told in roughly chronological order. It doesn’t shy away from either his drug use or his sexuality. (In fact, the film contains the first full-out gay sex scene ever included in a major Hollywood film.)

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The film, which John himself worked to bring to screen, does something quite refreshing for an historical biopic. While the film broadly sticks to the fact of John’s life and career, it doesn’t really try to present them in a standard factual narrative. Instead, at key emotional and career moments, John and the characters around him start singing his music, sometimes turning songs into duets, dance numbers, and the like.

The result is a film that tries to convey not precisely the facts so much as what it felt like to be Elton John. John’s childhood is expressed through “I Want Love”, sung by young John (Kit Connor), his rather self-centered mother Shiela (Bryce Dallas Howard), his distant and cold father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and his more attentive grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones), who recognizes his talent and helps him get a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. His first performance at an English pub when he’s 15 turns into the Bollywood-inspired dance number “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” When he gives his first American performance, “Crocodile Rock”, both he and the audience levitate off the ground, giving a sense of the transcendent feeling a great rock performance can create. “Rocketman” is used to convey his sense of profound unhappiness and isolation at the height of his stardom. His eventual sobriety is marked at the end of the film with “I’m Still Standing.” The result is a biopic that is more like a stage musical than a conventional Hollywood biopic.

Although the film roughly follows the facts, it departs from chronology in one very important way. The songs performed bear no chronological relationship to the moments they are used to illustrate in the film. For example, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” was released in 1973, but is used to depict John’s first public performance in 1962. His first American performance was in 1970, but “Crocodile Rock” wasn’t written until 1972. “I’m Still Standing” was not written while he was in rehab. So the film subordinates the chronology of John’s music to the goal of expressing John’s inner life, which is sometimes larger than life and sometimes deeply lonely.

Some of the people in John’s life have objected to the film’s characterization of key characters. His half-brothers have objected to John’s depiction of Stanley as cold and distant, asserting that Stanley had a much better relationship with John in his teen years than the film offers. The film depicts Sheila as basically too self-centered to appreciate her son’s remarkable musical talents, when in fact she was consistently supportive of him. But if the film is seeking to express John’s inner life rather than the strict objective facts these deviations are less problematic. John may have felt unloved even if his father was more loving than the film presents him as.

The film also does something quite nice during the closing credits. Throughout the film John performs in a range of increasingly outrageous outfits, including as Queen Elizabeth I. The closing credits include side-by-side comparisons of the film’s version of various outfits with photos of the actual outfits they were based on. While the film exaggerates the outfits slightly, in general the costumes hew fairly closely to the facts.

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Taron Edgerton in one of the film’s more flamboyant costumes

Overall, Rocketman takes a clever and insightful approach to a work-horse genre and finds something rather new in it. It does a good job conveying the spirit of John’s music and is definitely worth a look.

Want to Know More? 

Elton John’s autobiography is Me: Elton John