The film opens on a sequin-bedazzled devil striding boldly down a hallway. In the costume is the popstar Reginald Kenneth Dwight, better known by his stage alias, Elton Hercules John. At the end of the hall is the site of the impending wrestling match with the demons that torment his soul.
The site is a room in a rehabilitation facility. Incongruously clothed in orange horns and flamboyantly feathered wings, Elton takes a seat in an AA-like circle and admits he is an alcoholic. And a sexaholic. And a cocaine addict, prescription drug abuser, and shopaholic.
In many respects this list of compulsions outlines the main courses on the cinematic menu of what follows, even if Rocketman is also, at least at first, a high-energy, hit tune infused musical-drama-retrospective upon the origins and meteoric rise of the extraordinarily successful singer-songwriter.
Organized around flashbacks to Elton’s childhood and career, the narrative transitions seamlessly between high octane song-and-dance renditions from Elton’s more than 40-year repertoire and weightier dramatic moments. This energetic back and forth infuses the first third of the film with a delightful air of innovative gymnastics on the line between fact and fantasy – a not unfitting ode to the ostentatiously self-reinventing personality at its centre.
Darker themes gradually come to dominate, however, and amongst these are several scenes of homoerotic intimate relations, which, although leaving something to the imagination, for many viewers probably not enough.
Following the almost archetypical story arc of rock stars whose early skyrocketing success tips over into debauchery and a self-destructive nosedive, Rocketman at least attempts a redemptive landing which only partly hits the strip.
The film speaks assuredly about the psychological necessity of discovering genuine love, for instance. Yet, dramatically speaking, it also sends mixed messages as to whether or not its protagonist actually achieves it.
True, the postscript still-shots show a real-life elderly Elton, smiling and described as sobre and happily married, with a husband and two (presumably adopted) children. Yet the representation of the dramatized Elton is somewhat more ambiguous. Cinema is arguably more of a visual than a verbal medium, and what we see is often more convincing than what anyone says.
Accordingly, the most striking note in the film is probably sounded by the image of the adult Elton, having reached the apex of his therapy, stooping down and embracing the childhood version of himself. This sensitive youngster had been routinely denied sympathy and physical affection by his rough-hewn working class parents, and in this moment, the adult Elton faces and redresses his neglected childhood need.
The intent would seem to be something like “one only finds love after first loving oneself.” And while this maxim in itself may contain a large measure of truth, by itself it becomes a more sinister kind of thing.
Redolent of a pulling-up-one’s-own-bootstraps philosophy, this message that “self-love is the fundamental love” is also reminiscent of sentiments expressed in an older piece of epic storytelling, Milton’s Paradise Lost.
In the poem, the most illustrious of the fallen angels, Satan, cast down from heaven and roiling in the torments of hell, implicitly disregards his creaturely origin in divine love and insists he is the product of his own invention. He alone determines who and what he is.
Circling somewhere in the same philosophical solar system, Rocketman’s overriding emphasis would seem to place loving oneself at the centre of a personal quest for fulfillment in romantic relationships, however conceived.
The film is not altogether consistent and, alongside this dubious premise, also depicts other sources of emotional meaning and sustenance. For instance, a grandmother whose understated yet persistent affection invests Reginald Dwight with confidence even before he becomes Elton John. Or the lifelong songwriting partner who never ceases to love him through ups and downs, even if, in his words, not “like that.”
These characters would seem to communicate a love that comes from outside, that in turn inspires and sustains self-love. Even beneath a glossy veneer of eroticism that gradually takes centre stage, then, we might detect a less glitzy yet longer-lasting love channelled through the natural bonds of family and friendship.
Indeed, Rocketman’s unshrinking depictions of the search for love are what give this potentially flighty film about a pop star its real dramatic heft. At the same time, it would seem that the film ends as it begins, with intimations of a preposterous yet somehow sympathetic devilry.
If, as Milton suggests, self-love left to itself – that is pushed to the extreme of becoming the primary foundation and guiding principle of someone’s existence – distorts into something sinister, then it is fitting to say, even if it sounds ludicrous to say it, that the big show in Rocketman is in the end a spectacle of almost winsome and all but loveable diabolism.
This zombie film could use a little life
More often than not, it has been said, when someone sees good in something, he or she is probably right. Conversely, when one...
Close encounters of the divine kind in short story form
With the release this year of Exhalation: Stories, all of Ted Chiang’s brilliant, mind-bending short stories are now...
Saint raised nursing to a service of love
St. Camillus de Lellis was addicted to gambling in his younger years, but by keeping himself occupied with hard work, he was...
Jesus' body and blood give us life
First Reading: Gn 14:18-20 Second Reading: 1 Cor 11:23-26 Gospel Reading: Lk 9:11b-17 This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of...
Putting politics ahead of principles
Justin Trudeau must be having second thoughts today about the wisdom of lecturing U.S. Vice President Michael Pence on...
Our Mad Tea Party is getting noisy
It might be going a tad too far to say overstatement is killing us democratically. Hyperbole, thy name in politics has been...
God had an ace up his sleeve for gambling saint
St. Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614) was a sinner transformed into a saint. Camillus’ father was a soldier and adventurer who...