The advantage of making an authorised biography with the subject as one of the producers is that you understand the pulse of the person. There’s ample access to study, investigate, explore and cross-check. But there’s also the threat of self-censorship, obscurantism and sanitisation. Dexter Fletcher’s biopic on Elton John (Taron Egerton) toes the line carefully. While it takes away the British singer’s responsibility for his messy years, it does so by investigating the lifelong impact of his childhood and his relationship with his parents. In an almost Freudian tone, the film contrasts his life with his early years periodically. The outcome appears natural, despite a tried-and-tested and terribly predictable narrative arc of a Hollywood biopic.
The key is in understanding John’s flamboyance, which rests more in self-expression and discovery rather than rebellion. The biopic adopts the same tone, where the visuals are ‘extra’ and campy, and yet, somehow understated. The film opens with John barging into a rehab, wearing an orange devil costume, with fiery wings and glittery horns. There’s a halo of sparkle and rainbow around him momentarily. As the film keeps cutting back to the rehab, we see John sobering down in appearance, hinting at a transition, both external and internal. It’s not as subtle as the makers think it is, yet the film’s obviousness is effective in making a statement on self-acceptance.
- Director: Dexter Fletcher
- Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard
- Storyline: A timid child grows up to become a renowned musician and grapples with addiction and loneliness.
It also comes as a mighty relief that a film on the vivacious singer’s life embraces his queerness, and not merely to generate conflict. Despite sexuality being a critical reason for distress, Rocketman understands that the angst of belonging to a sexual minority manifests itself in other aspects of one’s life. Even though his mother tells him he has “chosen a lonely life” and that “he won’t find love”, the grievances and anxieties of sexuality overlap with those of finding sudden and unprecedented fame, addiction and the inability to sieve out genuine relationships. The film creates Venn diagrams, not silos.
Ahead of the film’s release, John announced that he didn’t let Hollywood studios dilute the queer sex scenes in Rocketman, as is often the case with mainstream projects. Unlike last year’s utterly problematic Bohemian Rhapsody (a Freddy Mercury biopic), Rocketman doesn’t turn away the camera as two men get into bed, and queer sex is not the synonym for evil in this film. Although, the classic Hollywood problem of vilifying promiscuity and underground queer culture is seen in Rocketman as well. When it comes to sexual decadence among queer characters, the film displays its conservatism time and again, giving clear disapproval to John’s ‘wild side’ and refuses to display it with as much openness. There’s perhaps a longer discussion to be had on how the American queer movement has distanced itself from the impudence and irreverence of the 70s, to fit into the current system and appease “American family values”.
Although John’s addictive music is undeniably at the centre of this film, it’s commendable that it refrains from using his songs as plot points. The music develops in a parallel realm yet holds significance to what we see onscreen. But the dialogues by Lee Hall are not as subtle, especially when it comes to John’s exchanges with his parents. Egerton’s performance, on the other hand, is as effervescent and mellow as John’s music. There’s a noticeable shift in body language from a closeted to an openly gay man, without being caricaturish.
But all said and done, Rocketman is a bit guarded. It’s almost as if John, as a 72-year old married and stable man with two children, is looking back at his tumultuous life through this film — at a distance. But we often forget that life lived in hindsight is vastly different from the one we live in real time.