On Such a Timeless Flight

As far as forms of storytelling go, I’m pretty one-note. I’m a novelist. Honestly, I’ve never really tried my hand at anything else. Sure, in college I had to write short stories for workshops, but I mostly cheated and used pieces of longer ideas that I had. Some forms don’t really personally interest me; others have been placed in the “maybe at some point” file; still others fascinate me but seem particularly difficult. I mean, novels are hard and all, but have you ever tried to write a genuinely good picture book? (Not that I’m exactly taking it easy on myself over here. My current project has multiple in-world first-person POVs, plus a couple of other “primary sources” including POETRY, which I don’t even write, with one character compiling and annotating this document. Because I’m a masochist, apparently.)

One form towards which I’ve generally had the attitude of “won’t catch me attempting that” is the biopic. I don’t just think that biopics are difficult; I think they’re inherently impossible. Try as you might, you can’t actually shoehorn a life into two hours, nor can you make it conform to a three-act structure. To quote the inimitable Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “life doesn’t make narrative sense.” Trying to force it to do so requires lots of cutting and altering, while still trying to maintain an air of realism and historical accuracy. That isn’t even meant as disparaging, because the filmmakers have to cut and alter; otherwise, the movie would be an unwatchable mess. But viewers know that life doesn’t make narrative sense, so the formula of biopics too often seems thin and dishonest. Often you’ll be left with the frustrating thought of I know there was more to it than that, and it was probably more interesting. 

All of that to say, I really liked Rocketman.

I saw it with my mom and sister the other day, and all of us had high opinions of it. My mom mentioned that one of her friends hadn’t realized going in that it’s actually a jukebox musical instead of just a straight biopic. Apparently, her friend hadn’t liked the fantastical and surreal musical numbers, prompting me to ask, “Does she not enjoy FUN?” Which is not to say that all of the songs are fun; some are, while others are heartbreaking. All of them, however, were emotionally overwhelming, totally immersing the viewer in the inner world of Elton John.

As far as I’m concerned, all would-be biopic filmmakers and screenwriters should go and take notes. Rocketman did not try to maintain an air of realism and historical accuracy. Songs were used wherever they’d be most emotionally relevant, with no regard for the actual chronology of Elton John’s catalog. This is obvious from the beginning, as his child self sings The Bitch is Back while his orange-devil-suited older self looks on. There’s no point in asking “is this how it really happened,” because the answer is obviously no. “This is a constructed narrative!” the movie brazenly shouts from the opening frames. That allows the typical anxiously maintained facade of based-on-a-true-story to fall away (indeed, the tagline of the movie is literally “based on a true fantasy”), leaving the screenwriter and director (Lee Hall and Dexter Fletcher, respectively) to focus on emotional as opposed to historical accuracy.

I am all for this style of storytelling about real people. After all, we all construct our lives in various ways. We have our favored anecdotes and the influences we decided in hindsight were formative. We streamline our memories and allow most quieter moments to dissipate, if only because we don’t have room to hold them all. But every person knows their own inner complexity, the desire and passion and ambition and love and disappointment and fear and sheer cussed stubbornness that define us to ourselves. I’m only 30 and have had a far less interesting life than Elton John, and I’d still have a hell of a time putting my whole emotional universe into two hours and deciding which life events were “major” enough to include in the right order and trying to trick an audience into believing that that’s exactly how it all unfolded. Rocketman is still technically a biopic, so it has to do a bit of the picking and choosing, but in dispensing entirely with the pretense of realism, it can focus the vast majority of its energy on Feelings. It wears its bruised heart on its sparkly sleeve. It still can’t put Elton John’s whole universe into two hours, but it can give us an awfully moving glimpse.

In general, I am more and more interested in stories that are unabashedly about Feelings over everything else. For example, after a good long run as a fan of the MCU, I think I’m officially superhero-ed out. Too much Action, too many Twists, not nearly enough time spent on Emotions beyond what the valiant actors managed to wear on their faces. And, I mean, I’m literally a fantasy author, so I can’t exactly dispense with plot — nor would I want to — but I want every detail to be in service of this is how it feels to be human. Biopics, when they creatively bypass the restrictions of its form, can show us this is how it feels to be this human. And though I’m still quite certain that I’d never try to write a biopic myself, I’d certainly go to see more if they can pull this off as gorgeously as Rocketman does.

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