Friday, June 7, 2019

Movie Review: Rocketman

Rocketman *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Dexter Fletcher.
Written by: Lee Hall.
Starring: Taron Egerton (Elton John), Jamie Bell (Bernie Taupin), Richard Madden (John Reid), Bryce Dallas Howard (Sheila Eileen), Gemma Jones (Ivy), Steven Mackintosh (Stanley), Tom Bennett (Fred), Matthew Illesley (Young Reggie), Kit Connor (Older Reggie), Charlie Rowe (Ray Williams), Stephen Graham (Dick James), Tate Donovan (Doug Weston), Orphelia Lovibond (Arabella), Celinde Schoenmaker (Renate Blauel).
The 2000s seemed to be the decade where the musical biopic both peaked and died. Ray and Walk the Line were about as good as traditional biopics about famous musicians could be, and then came Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, about Bob Dylan, which showed how one could explode the genre, and Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard, a parody that took a blowtorch to the clichés of the biopic, making it impossible to really take the straight biopic approach seriously anymore. Since then, there have been good ones – Love & Mercy, about Brian Wilson, took a unique approach to its subject – both sides of his genius brain explored – and last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody was a dire example of how clichés can smother even the most interesting of characters. It’s in this environment that Rocketman – about Elton John – comes along, and I think does something rather interesting in its approach. The structure is very much in the Ray/Walk the Line vein – but its approach is wholly unique, crafting a jukebox musical, with a lot of flourishes in it that make it stand out. In that way, it’s smart – it’s feeding you the comforting structure it thinks you crave, so that it can be queer and weird in its approach to things. I don’t think it’s a great film – but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Part of the reason it works so well is Taron Egerton’s performance as John. No, the star of Kingsmen wouldn’t have been my first choice to play John, but he turns out to be the correct one, despite the fact that he doesn’t particularly look or sound like Elton John himself. But he’s got the charisma to play John and he does shy away from the flamboyance of John – nor does he work that hard in making him lovable. As happens with many of these films – as the star spirals into drug addiction – he becomes kind of an insufferable prick – and Egerton is capable of doing that, while still maintain audience sympathy with John. It’s kind of remarkable what he pulls off really.
The film smartly doesn’t just get its musical moments by having John onstage performing them. These are full blown musical numbers, just this side of the camp of Mamma Mia. They really hit their stride when a young John starts performing Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting at a local pub, and then breaks out into the street to keep the music going – eventually becoming Egerton, who just keeps right on going. The songs you know then become somewhat different – they have different arrangement, and as mentioned, Egerton has a different tone in his voice. They pick the right songs at the right moments – including making Tiny Dancer even sadder and lonelier than it already was.
The structure, as mentioned, is pure musical biopic. We delve into John’s unhappy childhood – with an absent father, and a mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, working her accent hard), who is there, but not all that supportive. We see as his collaboration with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) flourishes. We see how he becomes big – how a manager (Richard Madden) takes advantage of him, first personally and sexually, and then professionally. We see the spin out into drug addiction, and its eventual recovery. The film is framed with John in an AA meeting – that he walks into in full regalia, and gradually takes it off, stripping down to the person underneath. It’s very Behind the Music – but in a decent way I suppose.
And it allows the film to go over the top in so many different ways – in terms of the music, and especially in terms of the costumes, as any movie about Elton John would have to. This movie is in love with its costumes and its wonderful. It also allows it to embrace John’s homosexuality, in a way that Bohemian Rhapsody was never comfortable doing.
The comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody are inevitable so I’ll just say this – there is not a single way in which Rocketman is not a superior film to that film. It’s inventive and creative in taking a stale genre, and doing something different with it. It’s not original per se – but it feels like it is. And it’s a hell of an entertaining ride.

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