Sunday, May 26, 2019
Guest Post: Rocketman (2019)
By Jonas Schwartz
On the heels of last year's hit Queen bio, Bohemian Rhapsody, Sir Elton John gets the movie treatment with Rocketman. Though, unlike Freddy Mercury, John still lives and has had major interaction with the filming, including forming a bond with the talented actor who plays him, Taron Egerton. Featuring dazzling musical numbers and an exquisite, emotionally naked performance by Egerton, there is much to enjoy in the 121 minute film. Sadly, despite the sexual subject matter, the script could have been written in the 1930s and '40s, when bios of famous people were all the rage. Writer Lee Hall pulls out every creaky cliché so that the audience has no concept of another soul other than John.
A bespectacled and bedazzled phoenix-dressed Elton John sashays into an addiction treatment center after walking out on a concert. He slowly strips away his costume and his walls of anguish, as he reveals how his love-less childhood and overwhelming adulthood have led him to alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction and shop-oholism. As a shy child named Reginald Dwight, he lost pride in self because his glum father (Steven Mackintosh) avoided affection, while his egoistic mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) dragged him through childhood like a burdensome pet. Only his gran (Gemma Jones) fostered Reggie's gifts. Gravitating towards the piano, Reggie found joy, and later recognition, playing in bands. A meeting with a music manager led to his longest standing relationship, with his close friend and lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Ridding himself of Reggie forever, the singer adopts a new name, Elton Hercules John, and flamboyantly turns the stage into a fantastical land of Oz. His outrageous costumes and theatrical stunts -- like using his feet to play piano cords -- quickly transform Elton into a wealthy superstar, but that's always when the vipers start slithering around.
Possibly influenced by the recent hit LA LA Land, Rocketman returns to the old concepts of musical film, where characters sing in situations they normally would not, breaking out in tunes and joining in with strangers who all know the same lyrics and dance moves. That's a brave conceit and one that works well in the fantasia of Elton John's mind. The score is also a jukebox musical, where all of John's songs are put in the mouths of characters to reflect their emotions and hidden desires. There's a reason why the Jukebox musical is the more reviled amongst critics. Writers shoehorn already established songs into a plot attempting to make it mirror situations and thoughts. For example, some of the lyrics of "Tiny Dancer" may appear to fit the situation as John watches his friend and partner Taubin dance with a sexy partygoer, however, the song does not reflect the isolation John feels at a party right after his successful night at The Troubadour, where even his best friend has left him to fail at his own devices. Other songs seem too on the nose that they feel inorganic.
Where the movie really launches is in replicating the intoxication of fame through the musical sequences, particularly John and the audience lifting into the air like helium-filled balloons in the "Crocodile Rock" sequence, or representing the frustration and joy of creative juices flowing like in the "Your Song" sequence.
The only complex relationship in the film script is between John and Taupin. Writer Hall gives none of the other characters enough depth so that they seem real, and not just barriers for John to conquer. The worst culprit is the John Reid character, John's shifty manager and lover (Richard Madden). Reid, who also managed Queen and was played by Aiden Gillen in Bohemian Rhapsody, is a vampire, sucking his partner's riches away, while abusing him physically and mentally. His metamorphosis from sexy, uninhibited lover to power-hungry creep will give audiences whiplash. Despite Madden giving his all in the role, the writing feels more like spite towards a person who publicly damaged Elton John, than a fully-realized character. It's the same poor characterization that Mercury's Mephistophelean lover Paul Prenter suffered from in Bohemian Rhapsody. Villains we can understand are more powerful than those who just commit evil because the plot requires it.
The film rests heavily on Egerton and he does NOT disappoint. A fabulous interpreter of John's songs and a candid portrayer of a complication man, Egerton never mimics Sir Elton John, he inhabits him. Egerton's love for the man he plays is palpable, and he gives Sir Elton the respect but also the jagged edges the behemoth deserves. If Sir Elton John had not existed before this movie, Taren Egerton would have created the myth with this performance. Bell is endearing as the rock in John's life and in a small role, Tate Donovan is hilarious as an out-there Doug Weston, owner of The Troubadour. The rest of the cast is good, just weighed down with thin roles.
On the merits of Egerton's performance and several musical numbers, Rocketman is an enjoyable time capsule of Sir Elton John's early life and career. It's just a shame that more ingenuity didn't go into the writing and direction. The musical numbers soar with an otherworldly nature, but the book scenes crash down to Earth.
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