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If You Don’t Like ‘Rocketman,’ You Don’t Like Elton John. Oh No, It Me?

Plus some other random thoughts about Reginald Dwight’s new biopic

Rocketman is a love letter to Elton John, which shouldn’t be a surprise since the Grammy-winning artist is one of the biopic’s executive producers. But it’s also a tribute to the kind of pop stardom that the 72-year-old songwriter helped popularize. There had been celebrity musicians — everybody from Elvis Presley to the Beatles — but no one before John had managed to be such a proudly emphatic, dazzlingly theatrical, whirling dervish of emotion and sensation in quite the same way. An unhappy kid born Reginald Dwight who reinvented himself as a shiny, strutting font of undeniable melodies, John wouldn’t be right for a traditional rock-bio treatment — his life has always been too big for cookie-cutter conventions.

So I suppose Rocketman is the perfect delivery device for Elton John fans, who will love its shameless euphoria and brazen showmanship. For better or worse, it’s an apt representation of the man’s legacy. Only by watching the movie did I come to a difficult realization: I’m just not that much of an Elton John guy.

That discovery is surprising. While he was never one of my personal favorites growing up, John was a constant presence on my radio and in my friends’ record collections. It would be like not liking the Beatles, Madonna or Tom Petty: His hits are eternal, ubiquitous and endlessly enjoyable. Why spend this life denying yourself such obvious pleasure? Plus, as he’s gotten older, John has proven to be a wholly admirable elder statesman, raising millions through his Elton John AIDS Foundation and throwing his weight behind controversial younger artists like Eminem. And he remains a passionate, high-profile advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, just this week lambasting Russia’s decision to show Rocketman without any of its gay content. There’s no good reason not to like Elton John.

And yet, as Rocketman rolled along, I found myself resisting the film’s rah-rah portrayal of a young Elton (Taron Egerton) as he rises to stardom, gets undone by excess and then finds redemption while seeking sobriety. That’s a standard rock-biopic narrative trajectory — the same one followed by last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody — but Rocketman enlivens it by imagining John’s life as a musical fantasia, occasionally breaking into song sequences as he dances through Broadway-style versions of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Bennie and the Jets.” With an artist as outlandish as John — whose stage costumes grew more flamboyant across the 1970s — such visual panache isn’t just understandable, it’s mandatory.

Since I consider myself a poptimist, I ought to be down with this glitzy, loving celebration of John’s unsubtle ballads and cocky rockers. And in fits and starts, Rocketman is a blast, reveling in the man’s go-for-the-throat hitmaking knack, while also noting the important contribution of his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). The movie exalts the importance of pop’s fizzy, flashy buoyancy. Sometimes, you want the stark reality of the Sex Pistols, the Clash or Public Enemy — but other times, you just want the yummy goodness of pure radio candy, which was John’s specialty.

But while Rocketman has its share of blazing fun, it has the same problem that always nagged John’s work, which is that it’s about as deep as a thimble. It’s not that the songwriter couldn’t conjure up poignant emotions on hits like “Your Song,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Candle in the Wind,” which are played at weddings and funerals to this day. But like a lot of ubiquitous pop songs, his classics either hit you right between the eyes — embedding themselves in your life during a crucial moment, remaining there forever — or they’re just pretty tunes that are pleasant background noise, fading away like smoke once they’re over. As beloved as John’s songs are, they largely fall into the latter category for me. His ornamental hooks and lilting voice are as recognizable as they are disposable, attacking the listener’s nervous system with such single-minded purpose that it feels more like an armored assault.

That same aesthetic strategy informs Rocketman, which has no interest in nuance or subtlety. It’s a semi truck thundering down the road on a collision course with its audience, determined to barrel you over with its gusto, tonal shifts and jukebox gems. The film has been conceived as an addict’s journey to clean living, showing how John finally made peace with his demons and found true love. Everything in the narrative is underlined and highlighted, emphasized and reinforced. Elton John is a musical god. But he is also a troubled soul. No doubt in real life he had to undergo intense therapy and rehab to get sober, but Rocketman treats these struggles with the same bold-type melodrama that’s always been at the core of John’s songs. And like John’s songs, Rocketman is engaging while also being a bit superficial and impersonal. It’s so busy entertaining us at every single second that it never pauses to let many real human moments emerge. The film treats recovery as just another exhausting pop sensation.

Egerton makes for a completely acceptable John: enthusiastic, bratty, bursting with life, ready for anything. In a way, the performance is almost too good because, like the musician, it’s completely likable without being particularly compelling. This isn’t to say that Elton John himself isn’t appealing (or compelling), because he surely is. (Rocketman makes the case that his difficult childhood and the shame he felt over being gay as a young man contributed to his poisonously low amounts of self-esteem.) But the movie deals so much with the performer’s shiny surface that it rarely goes underneath. For Rocketman, John’s style is his substance — he’s a piano-playing entertainer who wowed arenas in the hopes that the anonymous approbation would make up for the hole within himself. I kept longing for the film to interrogate its own surface, to question how the seeming disposability of pop is, quite often, a sunny mask that conceals something darker in the performer and his audience. But Rocketman isn’t interested in any of that: It’s merely an ad for how great Elton John is.

I suppose this is around the time that I acknowledge that I prefer Bohemian Rhapsody, the largely reviled Queen biopic, to Rocketman, which has been far better reviewed. My reasoning is pretty simple: As flawed as Bohemian Rhapsody is, I at least believed that it was about a performer, Freddie Mercury, who had depths worth plumbing, no matter how inelegantly. Rocketman may be more candid about its homosexual character’s love life and less clichéd in its biopic narrative, but it rarely made me appreciate or reconsider John’s magnificence.

Which is funny, considering that we live in a music world that’s been far more profoundly shaped by Elton John than Queen. Whether it’s Lady Gaga or Ed Sheeran — or Alice in Chains or Queens of the Stone Age (two alt-rock bands who have had John play on their songs) — modern superstars are defined by the world-clobbering pizzazz and indelible melodies that made John’s name. Rocketman pays homage to that pizzazz, but it’s not particularly curious about any other element of John’s greatness. His gift was making his songs seem effortless and eternal. The movie takes that gift for granted, and in the process, devalues it.

Here are three other takeaways from Rocketman

#1. John’s Troubadour shows sound amazing.

“Rejoice,” L.A. Times critic Robert Hilburn wrote in August 1970. “Rock music, which has been going through a rather uneventful period lately, has a new star. He’s Elton John, a 23-year-old Englishman whose United States debut Tuesday night at the Troubadour was, in almost every way, magnificent.”

That was the lede of Hilburn’s review of a John concert at the Troubadour, which (as shown in Rocketman) helped launch the relatively unknown singer in the U.S. Beyond doing a terrific job of capturing the look of that funky, iconic L.A. concert spot, the film suggests what euphoric performances that string of shows were.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find footage of John’s 1970 dates, so you have to rely on the movie to provide the visuals. Or you can read Rob Tannenbaum’s excellent recent oral history in the L.A. Times, which includes reminiscences from John, Taupin, Hilburn, Neil Diamond (who introduced John at that first show) and high-profile attendees like T Bone Burnett and Linda Ronstadt. The piece has the typical oral-history narrative — nobody was sure if this thing was going to work, but it turned out to be huge! — but even after all these years, the interviewees sound dazed by the experience.

Of course, the Troubadour shows became legendary, in part, because John went on to be a superstar. If he had fizzled out soon after, people probably wouldn’t be talking about those gigs with such reverence. Instead, the shows have the power of prophecy — they predict the greatness to come.

But the L.A. Times piece also chronicles a bygone era in which a single review had the ability to help launch a talent. Hilburn didn’t make John, but his glowing piece magnetized music-lovers in the U.S. who wanted to know who this new singer-songwriter was. The industry is different now — if the John concert happened today, dozens of attendees (even if they had to keep their phones off during the show) would simply tweet excitedly after the performance, kick-starting waves of buzz. (And the shows themselves would almost certainly have been recorded — musicians always have to think about those extra revenue streams.) By comparison, what happened at the Troubadour in 1970 felt special, sacred and secret. Best I can tell, you can’t even find bootleg recordings of the concerts. Rocketman captures the excitement, but even so, it still sounds like you had to be there.

#2. It’s shocking how few Grammys Elton John has won.

As most music observers will tell you, the Grammys are hardly an indication of artistic value. (How many Album of the Year winners from the last 10 years can you name?) Still, I found it shocking that the singer-songwriter has only earned five competitive Grammys. I think Kanye West is a genius, but he has 21, which is a lot. Jay-Z has 21. Stevie Wonder has 25. Beyoncé and U2 both have 22. Bruce Springsteen has 20. Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin both have 18. For such a beloved industry figure, John isn’t close to those other performers in terms of hardware.

So, briefly, here are the five Grammys he’s won:

  • 2000, Best Musical Show Album, Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida
  • 1997, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, “Candle in the Wind 1997”
  • 1994, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”
  • 1991, Best Instrumental Composition, “Basque”
  • 1986, Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, “That’s What Friends Are For”

These are… well, they’re certainly not Rocketman’s centerpiece tracks. Two of them are works made for Disney, while “Candle in the Wind 1997” and “That’s What Friends Are For” are well-meaning ballads for good causes — respectively, eulogizing Princess Diana and raising money for AIDS research. I would respectfully suggest that these are not among John’s creative peaks, nor are they the works his fans most love from him.

So why hasn’t John been as decorated as his peers? It’s hard to say, although my guess is that he wasn’t taken seriously enough as a major artist to beat out his fellow nominees — or he had the bad timing of being up against a cultural phenomenon. In 1970, he was nominated for Album of the Year (for Elton John) and Best New Artist, and got beat out by, respectively, Bridge Over Troubled Water and the Carpenters. (Paul Simon has won 16 Grammys.) And in future Album of the Year showdowns, his Caribou lost out to Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was bested by Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years.

Despite the many millions of records he’s sold, John never had that one signature year where he was the undeniable best artist in all of popular music — at least in terms of how Grammy voters see things. Not that I imagine he cares all that much. But for what it’s worth, he does have as many Grammys as his former tour mate Billy Joel. Speaking of Joel, he’s probably due for one of these rock-biopic things soon, too, huh?

#3. The movie has a great Cannes cameo.

Rocketman had its world premiere at Cannes, which isn’t necessarily the sort of movie you’d expect to see at the prestigious, serious-art film festival. But Cannes loves star-studded galas, so it made a certain amount of sense that Elton John and the film’s ensemble would walk the red carpet. Because I was reviewing the movie for Screen International, I had to attend the premiere, so me and my tuxedo were in attendance.

I suppose I should throw in a Spoiler Alert to discuss what made Rocketman such a fun film to see at the world’s most glamorous festival.

As the movie reaches its conclusion, John finally finds sobriety and regains his commercial footing. To punctuate this triumph, Rocketman cheekily inserts Egerton into footage of the performer’s 1983 music video “I’m Still Standing.” But what really made the moment special at Cannes was that the original video was shot just down the street from where we were watching the film. In fact, most of the video’s background landmarks are still standing around the city…

My Cannes audience went nuts for the local shout-out. Amusingly, the hotel that’s prominently featured in the clip is the very same hotel where I had gone earlier in the day to pick up my premiere ticket — and where I rode the elevator down with Bill Murray (but that’s another story).

Usually, those kinds of “Hello, Cleveland!” references in movies are kinda lame, but I’ll confess it was a treat this time. Other people who see Rocketman around the world will appreciate the finale for its celebration of Elton John’s happy ending. But only those of us at Cannes felt like the movie was happening in our backyard. And, yes, the beaches still look that fabulous.