Last year, rock ‘n’ roll biopic Bohemian Rhapsody broke records at the box office, won Best Actor at the Oscars, and nearly won Best Picture. Could Rocketman, the new biopic about Elton John, pull off the same feat? It may not pull in the same numbers. It made half of what Bohemian Rhapsody did on opening weekend. However, it definitely has a shot at the Oscars. With the exception of Jordan Peele’s Us and the extreme longshot of Captain Marvel or Avengers: Endgame getting a nomination, Rocketman is probably the first Best Picture nominee of the year. At least, the first one available for regular Joes like us to see. Plenty of potential nominees have already screened at Sundance, Cannes, and other festivals by now. So what makes Rocketman special?
A Strong Script
The script by Lee Hall ditches the paint by numbers formula of most biopics. The film uses an outer frame story of John attending an AA meeting and telling his story to jump back and forth in time. It also contains fantastical moments such as when everyone in the room is lifted into the air during “Crocodile Rock.” As the tagline for the movie says, “The only way to tell his story is to live his fantasy.”
Taron Egerton’s Performance
If you had asked me if I had seen a living actor who could play Elton John, I would have told you no. Until I saw Taron Egerton in the previews for this movie. He looks and sounds like Elton. And he gives an amazing performance. This is his graduation from genre films. From now on, he is a force to be reckoned with. And if he is snubbed by the Academy, it’s a damn shame. Whatever the next six months hold, this IS one of the best performances of the year and deserves to be celebrated.
The filmmakers went for an R-rating so they could be true to John’s story and include drugs, alcohol, and gay sex. Bohemian Rhapsody made Freddie Mercury a scapegoat and was almost afraid to focus on his gayness. Rocketman is a lot more fearless. It shows Elton kissing men, making love, even an uncomfortable moment with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. I know it may seem odd to compare Bohemian Rhapsody to Rocketman since they have the same director, Dexter Fletcher. However, they have different screenwriters, Fletcher only took over Boho Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired from the project, and Mercury was not around to have a hand in his own movie while Elton John was. The difference this makes is significant.
It’s Not a Jukebox Musical
While Bohemian Rhapsody felt like it was rushing from hit to hit, Rocketman uses Elton John’s songs out of chronological order and in surprising ways. It’s a child version of Elton, not an old queen, who sings “The Bitch Is Back.” The title song is not a hard rocking spectacle like it has become in concert but is a devastating song of desperation (which it has always been). The songs are made to fit the narrative rather than used for audience nostalgia. (If you need that, rent Almost Famous or 27 Dresses, both of which have epic Elton sing-alongs.) The dignity of the director’s vision is amazing. Where one might expect a show stopping number, many of the songs are used in a more subtle and unexpected manner.
A Strong Supporting Cast
My jaw dropped when I saw the end credits. I did not realize how much Jamie Bell had grown. He plays Elton John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, the lyricist responsible for many of his most well-known hits. Bell could score a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this role. Everything feels genuine. From his platonic love for his friend to his excitement at their rising fame. There’s a moment when he’s watching Elton put his words to music to complete “Your Song” that feels rather sweet.
On the other side of the coin is Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s neglectful mother. She remains a negative presence in his life throughout the film and delivers one of the movie’s most devastating emotional blows. Her performance might merit a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
It’s a Contender
Honestly, this film is a contender. I can see it running for Best Director for Fletcher and Best Screenplay for Hall. If it weren’t relegated to the credits, the new song “I’m Gonna Love Me Again” would be a strong contender for Best Original Song. While I’m still in complete awe of Us and hope it will go to the Oscars in several categories (Actress, Screenplay, Director, Picture), I can say without a doubt that the cast of Rocketman will be on the red carpet. I’m so excited. It feels like Oscar season has finally begun. Festival favorites are slowly beginning to creep into theaters. Next stop: Late Night.