“Rocketman fully acknowledges—and leans into—the fact that Elton John is gay.”
Title: Rocketman (2019)
Director: Dexter Fletcher 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writer: Lee Hall 👨🏼🇬🇧
Reviewed by Joi Childs 👩🏾🇺🇸
Rocketman follows the highs and lows of Elton John in this fantastical interpretation from director Dexter Fletcher—a director you may remember from another musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). In his previous film, Fletcher came into the last weeks of production after Bryan Singer’s scandal-tinged departure and helped usher Bohemian Rhapsody toward an impressive array of awards.
In Rocketman, Fletcher faces a different kind of challenge but similarly outdoes himself. Given the way Elton has lived in the public eye for years, a balancing act would be required to both honor reality while telling a compelling narrative. Luckily, Fletcher and writer Lee Hall take on that challenge with aplomb, crafting an entertaining story that breaks out of the strictures of pure biography to capture the essence of Elton John—both the man and the rock star.
Taking place in rehab, Elton (played by Taron Egerton, who gives an award-worthy performance) narrates the film but does so unreliably, embellishing in certain areas while flat out lying in others. Only two constants hold in the recounting of his life: his drug and alcohol addiction and struggles with his sexuality. The film alludes to them being symptoms of an unhappy childhood, as Elton’s interactions with his cold mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his uncaring father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) manifest in explosive ways throughout his life.
Now, this wouldn’t be an Elton John story without dramatics. The self-reflective rehab narration already sets up an emotional structure, while the film’s creative team expertly manipulates Elton’s music to connect audiences with the story. Elaborate musical numbers (both in scale and special effects) marry tight choreography, stellar singing from Egerton himself, and exciting stunts to turn what could have been a somber tale into a fun crowd-pleaser.
Elton has been openly gay since 1988, so it makes sense that his romantic and sexual relationships focus on men. Still, three women bear some weight in the film: his mother Sheila, his grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones), and the woman he briefly married, Renate (Celinde Schoenmaker).
Sheila acts as an antagonist, directing cruel words toward her son that breaks him at different moments in his life. But this is offset by Ivy, who stands by Elton as his ultimate support system. Meanwhile, Renate, a sound engineer turned unhappy wife, gets dragged into Elton’s destructive spiral. All three exist solely to serve the man’s narrative, but they’re portrayed in ways that feel natural rather than stereotypical.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 0% of key cast and crew members were POC.
While people of color aren’t invisible in Rocketman, they do have limited screen time and only exist to drive Elton’s story. The most memorable instance occurs through a small storyline, when a younger Elton plays for a local band called Bluesology.
Bluesology gets hired to play for Black soul acts who are touring the UK. During one such tour, a Black band member kisses Elton, only to rudely out him later on in front of a group that includes Elton’s friend and frequent collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). This negative incident feels evened out, however, by the positive way bandleader Wilson (Jason Pennycooke) sagely gives Elton advice on life. In both cases, Rocketman generally avoids cliches about Black musicians.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +1.00
Rocketman fully acknowledges and leans into the fact that Elton John is a gay man. This almost wasn’t the case; before the film’s release, various outlets reported that the sex scene between Elton and his manager John Reid (Richard Madden) could get cut. Luckily, this did not happen and the scene stayed intact. Although the relationship between Elton and his manager sours, their early intimacy is welcome and beautiful to watch.
Rocketman goes on to show multiple facets of Elton’s love life: joy, vulnerability, fear, search for acceptance, and eventually, peace. When Elton calls his mother to inform her that he’s gay, she calmly responds that she already knows, but warns him, “I just hope you realize you’re choosing a life of being alone forever.” This is TERRIBLE advice to give your gay son, but it shows the real hurt that queer folks can face when coming out to friends and family who are not accepting.
With all of this in mind, I would be remiss not to mention that while Egerton does a fantastic job, and Elton John himself wanted Egerton to play him, he remains a straight man playing a gay character. Discussions arose during last year’s awards season highlighting how Freddie Mercury’s queerness was sanitized in Bohemian Rhapsody, and having a straight actor didn’t help matters. Rocketman takes care to avoid the same pitfalls as the film prior. But it’s a valid question to ask why there aren’t more queer actors playing queer roles in mainstream media.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
Rocketman’s tagline calls itself a “true fantasy”, but it’s the grounded elements that give it weight. Fletcher takes full advantage of the R-rating to depict drugs, alcohol, and sex with candidness. By forsaking universality and designing a story that feels more true to Elton John, the end result makes for a heartbreaking but eventful watch.