Directed by Dexter Fletcher
There is no way to discuss
Rocketman”, Dexter Fletcher’s new musical about Elton John’s pre-sober rise & fall, without comparing it to last year’s darling, “Bohemian Rhapsody”. In case I need to explain why…both John and Mercury were born of working class families, icons of pop music, eccentric fashionistas and lived excessive lavish lifestyles; both rose to stardom in the same era; and both are strongly-held symbols of power for the Gay community, both for coming out in public and for their proximity to the AIDS epidemic (one succumbing to it, the other fighting it through charity and awareness).
Now, those of you who read this blog know I thought “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a great experience, but a simply terrible film (you can read it here). It was everything I hate about bio-pics. Predictable, boiler-plate, over-reaching and drab, it only worked because of the music and one or two of the performances. Worst of all, it decided to cover his entire life instead of choosing a specific area to focus its energy and resources on. Finally, it was an utter whitewash of what was a fully lived sexual existence which, alas, directly led to his way-too-early death.
“Rocketman” is a MUCH better film. It sticks to its stated purpose (John’s difficult self-reflection during time in rehab); it uses his music as thematic gestures, rather than chronological touchstones; it has a specific style (it’s a musical…a real musical); and, best of all, it’s never predictable (well, we’ll get to the third act in a bit). All of this, however, doesn’t mean it’s a great film…at times it’s not even a good one…but it sure makes it a LOT more interesting a watch than “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Leading the “interesting” charge is the decision to make it a musical. While throwing the chronological nature of John/Taupin’s creations out the window is a lovely touch, there are more than a few song decisions that seem a little too shoe-horned to fit a scene, or a little too precious in general. And the choreography is often quite stilted…never truly flowing. But worse than either of those complaints is the occasionally abrupt and disjointed musical choices, and the quickness of the scenes within the framework of those moments. We never get the opportunity to sit within these otherwise delightful bits long enough to feel included. Thus there are moments of real frustration, some confusion, and a little exhaustion.
Which is a shame, because the performances are pretty damned spectacular – and come very close to saving this film from its over-reliance on style. Taron Egerton is terrific. Really terrific. It’s so much more complete a performance than his Oscar-winning “Bohemian Rhapsody” counterpart, Rami Malik. And, not surprisingly, the most successful bits of the film come from his relationships within the film. This is a hell of an accomplishment, since, like most musicals, there are more than a few obvious stereotypes…and some characters that come and go in…well…seconds (“look here comes Renate…aaaaaand there she goes…”). But, smartly, Fletcher makes those closest to John’s sphere interesting enough that we’re willing to forgive these obvious bits. This is most evident with Bernie Taupin’s character, played with brilliant ease by the never better Jamie Bell. Taupin’s face acts as John’s mirror, giving him a baseline with which to gauge his rise and descent. For me, their bond (and its ebbs and flow) is easily the highlight of the film. Some of the other characters succeed almost as well in this manner…most notably Elton’s father, played by Stephen Mackintosh. Mackintosh imbues the character with much more depth, weight and post-WWII-PTSD than the thinly written part deserves, and his emotional journey is the most emotionally loaded guide to the film’s second act. Less successful, but ultimately worthwhile, is Richard Madden’s John Reid. Still teetering on two-dimensional, his Reid is at least well-formed enough to give us a semblance of a true antagonist (although, maybe next time, let’s not give him anything to sing). More important to the comparison with “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the use of his character to show us that it’s not just a loving gay relationship that the young Elton was searching for, but gay sex…and what that looks and feels like – the passion, exploration, fondling, touching, kissing…basically everything that was white-washed out of the other film. It’s a massive distinction squarely put in the correct actor’s hands. Finally, a word about the two kids who play the young Reggie (Elton). Matthew Illesley, the pre-adolescent lad, is quite good, effectively showcasing his sad, lonely and musically prodigious life inherent in his experiance of post-War England. Kit Connor, on the other hand, simply cannot hang with what is asked of him, and since he introduces us to the musical-theater nature of the film, it’s a problem. It makes very little sense until he morphs into Taron Egerton during his transformation from classical to pop music (although what Ska and East Indian music has to do with anything related to Elton John is beyond me – other than to pander – who knows).
One cannot write about this film, however, without mentioning the designers. Julian Day’s costumes are glorious, evocative and awe-inspiring. So, too is Marcus Rowland’s design and George Richmond’s photography. Dense, detailed, and colorful, you’d swear this is a Baz Luhrmann joint. Finally, Matthew Margeson’s score is fucking brilliant (except in those bits where the director requires an unwelcome right turn). It’s a complete reimagining of John’s compositions, placed in a Broadway framework – and still just as hummable as our memories of the originals. It’s an easy and clear Oscar favorite.
But, lest you think I forgot, that third act is brutal. Obvious, simple, seemingly right out of Bill’s Big Book and WAY too pat, the ending almost kills the film….and more importantly, seems to absolve the man from any responsibility for his actions, decisions or choices. It’s the movie’s most confounding aspect, and not just because it’s what you are left with as the curtain closes. It colors everything that’s come before…and makes you wonder how much power the real Elton John had over the final cut. I’d like to think not much…but…
So, as usual, while I’ve been very picky, this is an extremely entertaining film. It has more depth, better performances, is infinitely more interesting, and sticks to a more specific point of view than “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Yeah, you should see it. And, although you should be prepared for less of a standing ovation-inducing ending than that other film, “Rocketman” will last far longer in your memory banks.