Friday, August 09, 2019

"Rocketman": review

Following hard on the heels of smash biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody" is 2019's "Rocketman," the wholly unreliable narrative of the life of singer Elton John (Taron Egerton). Comparisons between "Rhapsody" and "Rocketman" are inevitable: both were directed by Dexter Fletcher (even though Bryan Singer, despite being fired from "Rhapsody," was given director credit); both movies focus on larger-than-life gay megastars; both are carried along by a slew of musical numbers, and both rely on the crucial, central, titanically energetic performance of their respective stars.

But "Rocketman" makes little or no attempt to be a standard musician's biopic: instead, it's a full-on musical, with Elton John's past featuring scenes in which characters suddenly break unabashedly into song. John's work (and that of lyricist and lifelong straight-mate Bernie Taupin) spans decades and genres. It's enough material for there to always be a song that perfectly fits a given moment in John's life. In fact, the movie argues that most of these songs were born of events in John's life—which may or may not be true, given the liberties taken with chronology. A quick scan of Wikipedia shows that the movie is almost entirely fictional, and there are currently controversies surrounding the uncharitable portrayal of certain key characters in John's story: relatives of the people depicted in the movie have expressed varying degrees of confusion, dismay, and anger at what they see as gross, even slanderous,* mischaracterizations. John was an executive producer on the film, and according to him, he was reduced to tears when he watched the final product. I imagine this means he found the film to be an "authentic" portrayal of his life—factually inaccurate but morally right.

The story's framing device is a group-therapy session that John basically hijacks, and at which he tells his life's story. As the film begins, Elton Hercules John slo-mo walks on scene wearing a flamboyant costume—one of many—that makes him out to be both devil and angel, a coincidentia oppositorum of terrestrial carnality and celestial musicality. We're given to understand that John is telling his story over several days and several sessions: the composition of the therapy group keeps changing every time we cut back to it.

What we learn is that John has led a miserable existence thanks to a mostly absentee father (Steven Mackintosh) and a cold, narcissistic mother (Bryce Dallas Howard... strangely). Neither parent supported John's musical aspirations, nor did they recognize his budding talent: it was young Reginald Dwight's grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who gave the boy the emotional support he needed to cultivate his prodigy-level talent and gain entry into the Royal Academy of Music. Playing as part of a backup band before finally breaking through when he changes his name and his outlook, Reginald—now Elton John—finds himself on the ladder of success, only ever moving upward. Record deals and concerts go from dreams to reality, and along with all the success come sex, drugs, betrayal, and the constant fear of being outed as gay. Through it all, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is a constant companion, supplying the lyrics that John instantly transmogrifies into memorable music.

The overall arc of the film latches on to the theme of John's basic desire to be loved. Having received so little love as a child, John vainly seeks it from fans and hangers-on, even as he vainly seeks solace in drugs, alcohol, and sex. John's manager John Reid (Richard Madden in this movie, and portrayed more charitably in "Bohemian Rhapsody" by fellow "Game of Thrones" alum Aidan Gillen) goes from adoring to monstrously controlling, even forcing John to perform a concert a short time after John has had a heart attack. In the end, though, John has his therapeutic breakthrough, sobers up with help from a rehab clinic (the very clinic at which he's hijacking the group-therapy session to tell his tale of woe), and gets back out on stage to keep belting out those famous tunes.

As with "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Rocketman" scores points in terms of its technical achievements. John's costumes, which often come at the viewer in fast and furious montages, are hilariously true to the actual costumes worn by the real Elton John. Director Fletcher's kinetic camera work is in evidence, as is his deft handling of both fast-paced group repartee and intimate one-on-one cri de coeur moments. The editing can get a bit frenetic, but the wildness is nowhere near the absinthe-fueled level of, say, Baz Luhrmann in "Moulin Rouge."

Among the actors surrounding Taron Egerton's version of Elton, special note must go to Jamie Bell as bestie Bernie Taupin. Bernie isn't gay, but he loves his best mate like a brother. In the movie, Elton claims to have been friends with Bernie for years, and they've never once had a row—a claim that's contradicted at least once during the story. Gemma Jones as Ivy Dwight is believably supportive and tender to young Elton, who is ably played at different ages by Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley (who looks uncannily like an old photograph of young Elton shown during the end credits). Richard Madden, whom I know best as the ill-fated Robb Stark from "Game of Thrones," is masterful as an evil version of John Reid (who, you'll recall, also managed Queen), a cancerous presence who takes over Elton's life and nearly ruins him, beginning as Elton's lover and gradually transforming into Elton's torturer. The lone false note in all this is Bryce Dallas Howard, whom I found to be miscast in the role of Elton's mother, Sheila Eileen Dwight. Howard, the very Amurrican daughter of the great Ron Howard, needs to work on her English accent. A lot. (Actually, it's not so much the accent as the intonation: Howard sounds like nothing so much as an American doing an impression of an English accent, and that performance took me partly out of the movie, as did her exaggeratedly insouciant, callous way of acting. Or was that meant to be a cartoonishly distorted memory of past family life...?)

So now we come to the topic of Taron Egerton, best known for his work as Eggsy in the Kingsman films. Egerton is tasked with nothing less than carrying the entire plot. He did his own singing, and I'm pretty sure he did his own piano work, too, all while dressed up in those ridiculous costumes that John has always loved. Here's a spoiler: Egerton sounds nothing like Elton John. He lacks the singer's power and resonance. That said, he does capture John's soul-bearing melancholy, and when he's in costume, Egerton even looks a lot like young Elton. The real Elton John was apparently quite enthusiastic about Egerton's performance; the two have become friends and have performed on stage together as part of the promo tours they've done for the movie. It's touching to see: during those performances, Elton John sits back a bit and plays the piano while Egerton sings John's songs. Egerton's portrayal of the off-stage Elton John is fascinating, even riveting: the frowns, tics, twinges, and scowls convey volumes of thought and emotion. I have no idea whether the actual Elton John is similarly expressive, but this fictional version of him is an open book filled with a long, sad story.

But if we come back to the comparison thing, I have to admit I wasn't as deeply moved by this movie as I had been by "Bohemian Rhapsody." Maybe it was the overdose of Liberace-like flamboyance (Liberace gets a quick nod during the scene in which Elton calls his mother and comes out as gay; his mother is watching Liberace on TV when he calls). Maybe I don't like Elton John as much as I like Queen. Maybe it was the underlying bipolarity of the movie's tone: the ups and downs tended to come in relentless waves, violently whipsawing my mind. Maybe it's the fact that the filmmakers decided to make Elton's life into a musical based on very few actual facts, thereby turning the whole project into the vision of an unreliable narrator. One of the movie's promo posters bills the film as "based on a true fantasy," and that's certainly the spirit in which Elton John's story is told. "Rocketman" isn't a sanitized hagiography, but it makes no bones about not being firmly grounded in reality. In the end, I'm glad John liked this distorted, hyper-cinematic version of his life, and I'm glad that he and Taron Egerton became friends. Something real and good came out of this experience, but for me, ultimately, the film was less than real, and not quite as good as it could have been. Watchable, yes. But then again... no.

*I assume I'm using the word slanderous correctly, here. Legally speaking, slander is spoken whereas libel is written, and a movie is more about the art of the spoken word than the art of the written word. And yet, movies are based on written scripts, so maybe libelous is le mot juste in this case. Are there any legal experts among my readers?


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh, drink up! It's from a man who makes potions in a traveling show.

Jeffery Hodges

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John Mac said...

Great review. Disappointing that a biopic wasn't really a true story. I've always been a fan of Elton's music but would have enjoyed a factual portrayal of his life. Oh well.