Rocketman's lessons for the music biz

Rocketman's lessons for the music biz

Elton John’s biopic, Rocketman, hits UK cinemas today – and its success will be closely watched by both the movie and music industries.

Following hot on the heels of the blockbusting Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic that smashed box office records and ignited the band’s music on streaming services, Universal – which recently signed an all-encompassing deal with John – will have high hopes for a similar effect this time around.

Yet Rocketman is a more complex, less accessible film than Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s as much a fantasy musical as a biopic, with nods to Tommy’s surrealism and The Greatest Showman’s pizzazz. Meanwhile, Rocketman rarely flinches at portraying the rock’n’roll lifestyle the way Bohemian Rhapsody did. But while Taron Egerton does a great impression of his subject, he doesn't inhabit the role the way Rami Malek did with Freddie Mercury.

How such factors affect the film’s performance will be closely watched as the biz contemplates greenlighting a whole new host of rock’n’roll life stories. But what else should the industry take away from the movie? Music Week was among the first publications to see the film and presents here, in technicolour, Rocketman’s do’s and don’ts for the music biz…

Do: Bring back the landmark gig

Perhaps the most exciting scene in Rocketman recreates John’s legendary 1970 US debut at Doug Weston’s famous Los Angeles club The Troubadour. It brilliantly captures the excitement and nerves surrounding a show that really, truly matters, from Bernie Taupin’s gleeful announcement that “Neil Diamond and half the Beach Boys” are at the bar, to Weston’s immediate coercing of the team into booking more shows at his venue. Nowadays, such gigs are rare: it’s impossible to get all the tastemakers in the same place at the same time and heavier touring schedules mean there will always be another show anyway. But Rocketman will make you wish that things could be that simple again.

Don’t: Bring back the bad old days

Rocketman has no qualms about covering John’s well-documented substance abuse issues (the film opens with him in rehab listing himself as an “alcoholic, cocaine addict, sex addict…). Today’s squeaky-clean stars may be shocked at that, but they’ll surely be even more horrified at its portrayal of an industry that essentially ignored or enabled John’s problems as long as the cash kept coming in. As the biz inches back towards those glory days in monetary terms, it’s to be hoped that “duty of care” remains on the agenda.

Don’t: Worry about the facts

Bohemian Rhapsody played so fast and loose with Queen’s timeline that even people who were there were confused. Rocketman plays similar, if subtler games, shifting events and characters around to suit its redemptive narrative. Some in the industry may have better memories, but it seems unlikely to bother the public too much – worth bearing in mind when you’re commissioning that next screenplay…

Do: Think hard about the soundtrack

This seems obvious. But, while Bohemian Rhapsody went straight for the jugular with Queen’s Greatest Hits, Rocketman bravely leaves plenty of Elton John classics on the bench (eg Candle In The Wind, heard only in a throwaway snatch of piano). It also gets Egerton to sing them, rather than lip sync, which will make for a soundtrack album that’s light on the real Elton. That never did Mamma Mia! any harm of course (and Egerton sings much, much better than Pierce Brosnan ever did), but will the Rocketman OST prove to be an essential companion piece to Elton’s greatest hits, or a distraction from them? Time will tell…

Don’t: Overthink anything else.

Essentially, the music biopic formula is pretty simple: sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. That means there are plenty of other great vintage stories out there to be plundered – who wouldn’t want to see the story of David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Courtney Love, Oasis or Guns N’Roses on the big screen? But, if you want the Hollywood treatment for today’s artists in 30 years time, you might need to cut them some slack. You won’t get much future celluloid gold out of endless social media sessions and streaming strategy meetings… Whatever his personal failings, Elton John remains a rock star throughout Rocketman’s two-hour running time, just as he has throughout his real-life career. If someone wants to use that as inspiration, their name could also be lighting up the multiplex in years to come.

* Rocketman is in cinemas now. To read Music Week’s 2017 feature on Elton John’s digital reboot, click here. To read Elton John and Bernie Taupin discussing their 50-year songwriting partnership, click here. To subscribe and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.

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