Rocketman: The Movie Musical Done Right


Jessica Anthony

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece about ​Cats (2019)​ and how sometimes, stories should simply be left in the hands of live performance. When it deals with something as whimsical and strange as cats in a junkyard competing to be the subject of their annual ritual sacrifice, the avenue of hyper-realistic cinematic effects often feels like gruesome overkill. However, every once in awhile, a story meets a director that understands the ins and outs of what makes a musical ​work​ on screen.

Rocketman ​was that movie. Make no mistake, this is still a column about music first, and a movie review second – ​Rocketman is far from a perfect movie. Too much time is often devoted to the wrong kind of plot development, the ending is incredibly abrupt, and the excess feels excessive, but everyone I have spoken to who has seen the movie can fundamentally agree on one thing: the movie captured the essence of the stage musical in the cinematic form in a way that has rarely ever been done before.

This made me ask myself what exactly it was, both in soundtrack and execution, that made the viewing experience feel so alive. The first and most obvious thing that came to mind was the way the music was used. ​Rocketman ​is a jukebox musical, meaning that the music was not written for the musical, but rather, pre-existing music was reformatted into the context of the movie. In most instances of a rockstar biopic musical, this often takes the form of watching the musician writing or performing the music; elaborating on the creative process that made the music come to life – ​Bohemian Rhapsody ​and ​8 Mile ​come to mind. ​Rocketman​ uses music in a different way, telling most of the major plot points through songs, instead of having the songs convey the emotional fallout. This form of forwarding the plot through song and dance (the most impressive example being the Saturday sequence) makes it feel more like a musical; unsurprising considering Elton John wrote the score and extended mixes for songs, something he has won Tonys for already.

The other thing that I felt truly set ​Rocketman ​apart from other movie musicals was the way that it was unafraid to portray the musical dance breaks as a metanarrative that did not try to mimic reality. Scenes like Crocodile Rock do not leave it at Elton John performing Crocodile Rock, but rather, make it into a central point of his character arc as he begins to feel the euphoria of live performance, as he and the audience begin to levitate during an instrumental break. This, not to mention the fact that almost all the effects being used are practical effects.

Of course, it goes further than that. The extended mixes and re-recordings of the songs are incredible – soundtrack standouts include the rendition of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Honky Cat, and of course, the titular song Rocketman. While the movie itself has flaws, it managed to do something almost no movie musical does, and for that, it deserves immense recognition.