I should have known better than to venture out to the theater for the Elton John biopic Rocketman. I was at least smart enough to skip last year’s big-deal musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, even before I knew it had a notorious rapist attached as its official credited director. The uncredited director who was tasked to save that drowning production (when Bryan Singer was rightly booted from it), Dexter Fletcher, promised a little more cohesion & stage-musical fantasy in this follow-up, but everything else about Rocketman looked just as cheesy & false as Rhapsody. If I’m being totally honest, the only real reason I was curious about Rocketman was the news reports after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, which slated it as the fist-ever major studio Hollywood production to feature onscreen gay sex. I had to see (and support) that decades-late “achievement” for myself, but it put a lot of unfair pressure on the film to, em, perform in that one specific way, setting me up for disappointment before frame one. Very few people are wholly successful in their first full-on gay sex encounter, so I’m not sure why I expected Hollywood to be any different.
Rocketman was only willing to give me wholesome showtunes gay when the material at hand clearly called for drunken, sweaty dive bar gay. The framing device of this post-Walk Hard biopic is an AA meeting where Elton John looks back on his life in sappy, musical flashbacks while gradually stripping off a gorgeous bejeweled-devil stage costume to reveal the vulnerable man underneath. His narration continually reassures the audience that his life was ravaged by sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, but everything we see onscreen is musical theatre kids playing dress-up in squeaky clean sound stage environments. Taron Egerton does a decent-enough job embodying Elton John both onstage & off, except that his vocal performance is more Broadway musical than coke-addled rock ‘n roll. As I should have expected, the onscreen gay sex early reports promised is similarly neutered. The most intimate, extensive scene of two men bonin’ is accompanied by the least sensual Gospel soundtrack imaginable and quickly averts its eyes just when the room is steaming up. Later, an expressive, Old Hollywood musical staging of a pansexual orgy is intercut with childhood memories & returns to the AA frame story, zapping the moment of any potential titillation. Elton John reports in the picture that he “fucked everything that moved,” “abused every drug there is,” and “enjoyed every minute of it,” but it all amounts to the effect of a “Footage Not Found” title card, a classic case of telling-not-showing.
That’s not to say there’s no fun to be found here. Bryce Dallas Howard is an unexpected hoot in a career-high role as John’s cruel alcoholic-housewife mother, essentially a half-speed Mommie Dearest drag routine sponsored by Quaaludes. There are also a few Baz Luhrmann-esque poetic breaks from reality among the musical numbers, the highlight being a moment of communal levitation at John’s first American concert. Even those moments are hindered by Fletcher making the safest choices possible, though. For instance, when John announces “For my next trick, I’m going to kill myself,” and overdoses at the bottom of a swimming pool, he’s greeted there by a childhood version of himself singing “Rocketman” – not the obvious, more daring choice of “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself.” Other sordid, sweaty rock ‘n roll numbers like “Dirty Little Girl” & “Sweet Painted Lady” are missing in favor of safe Greatest Hits tracks, which are further softened with musical theatre, Bollywood dance homage, and – I swear to God this is true – second-wave ska. Elton John’s life story is honestly not all that interesting. He’s a blue-collar kid who worked hard to develop his talent, did a few too many drugs when he first got famous, and is now happily married with kids and a swelling bank account. When you remove the sweaty, hedonistic danger of the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll from that template there isn’t much left worth an audience’s time. I didn’t show up to celebrate a millionaire’s (albeit admirable) success in sobriety; I showed up for gay sex & fabulous costumes – of which only the latter satisfies.