Rocketman showers glitter on Elton John’s glorious whole

Movie Review: Rocketman

Director Dexter Fletcher swallows some of the uglier truths about the arena rock sensation that defined the 1970s in an entertaining spectacle that brings real feeling to what many considered a pop music sausage factory.

Rocketman

4/5

Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, Gemma Jones, Matthew Illesley, Kit Connor, Charlie Rowe

Directed by: Dexter Fletcher

Running time: 121 minutes

Rating: Restricted

Opens wide May 31, 2019

By Katherine Monk

I’m glad I didn’t read Rolling Stone in the 1970s. I probably would have taken Elton John for a “slovenly,” “sentimental,” and “overripe” artist specializing in a “post-industrial derivative of Philadelphia pop rock” — “a mechanical robot” who shared an “expedient… blankness of artistic personality” with lyricist Bernie Taupin.

Oh. And the magazine also wrote his career was pretty much dead by the 1980s, writing he had “gotten both fat and married” by age 40, and “he didn’t have what it took to remain a full-fledged superstar….”

So reads Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. Yet, it’s pretty clear from Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, that Elton John’s place in music history is about to be revised in glorious fashion.

Fletcher’s new film is the kind of public relations gift that every human being on the planet would love to receive, for it not only excavates every single triumph, it explores every flaw with a forgiving spirit and creative purpose. As a result, Rocketman isn’t just another biopic about a rock star whose music formed the soundtrack of a generation, it’s an affirmation of the human endeavour — for all its good, and all its bad.

Fletcher’s new film is the kind of public relations gift that every human being on the planet would love to receive, for it not only excavates every single triumph, it explores every flaw with a forgiving spirit and creative purpose. As a result, Rocketman isn’t just another biopic about a rock star whose music formed the soundtrack of a generation, it’s an affirmation of the human endeavour — for all its good, and all its bad.

In fact, the opening scene of the film begins with Elton John as the devil — or more accurately, Taron Egerton dressed up as Elton John dressed up in a glittery red costume with horns and wings. Backlit to show his stubby, feathered silhouette, he storms down a hallway. We hear each elephantine footfall. He pushes through two doors, but it’s not to a waiting stage. Instead, it’s a room full of people in what looks like a group therapy session.

We’re in rehab, which is always a good place to start a personal narrative. Not only does it shortcut our way to flashbacks and childhood history, it admits a sense of failure and regret, as well as a desire for redemption through an acknowledgement of personal responsibility. In other words, it puts a realistic human frame around the picture.

Then, it blows it to smithereens with a surreal musical number. Dexter Fletcher isn’t really doing anything we haven’t seen before in movies such as Moulin Rouge or Mamma Mia! or, for that matter, Bohemian Rhapsody, which he finished after Bryan Singer’s unsavoury departure. He’s simply taking the best ideas from all these successes and stitching them onto a ‘70s jean jacket, one glittery-eyed smiley face and sequinned daisy at a time.

Using the music as the central cues, Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall pull from Elton John’s entire catalogue to form the dramatic melody. They find the right ballad to echo each moment of depressive reflection, as well as the right solid gold hits to make us engage in every coke-fuelled moment of giddiness.

The whole thing feels built for Broadway as it weaves high-pitched drama with a parade of explosive production numbers, all scored to the music made famous by the protagonist. It’s all so beautifully fortuitous. Imagine if Mamma Mia! had been about ABBA — not a mother-daughter-daddy-daddy-daddy deal.

Yet, the bonus of having Elton John’s greatest hits animate Elton John’s evolution from junior piano prodigy Reggie Dwight to world’s top pop star hits two potential snags. The first is Elton John does not sing the songs. Teetering British actor Taron Egerton (Robin Hood, Eddie the Eagle, Kingsmen) sings all the tunes, and he doesn’t sound anything like Elton John. Not really. He captures the belting spirit and most of the notes, but he lacks the bouncing rubbery timbre that marked an era’s preoccupation with sweaty silicon and super-balls.

Taron Egerton’s voice isn’t as “good” technically, but it does something John’s voice doesn’t. It sings with feeling. Which brings up potential snag number two: John’s voice is John’s voice — and its modulations are predictable and, therefore, pleasant. But as Rolling Stone might say, they are also “adenoidal” and “artistically blank.”

Taron Egerton’s voice isn’t as “good” technically, but it does something John’s voice doesn’t. It sings with feeling.

This idea of emotional absence is real. Because John didn’t write the lyrics, he wasn’t telling his own story in each song. He found the melody through someone else’s words, and in performing the work, found a way to express his magnificent rainbow of feelings.

So much of Elton John the man was Elton John the performer, that at one point, not even he could really tell the difference — which, of course, is where we begin: In a bid for truth, or at least a hint of emotional honesty.

Fletcher literally peels the guise off, one layer at a time, through the recurring group-therapy device. Each scene and musical interlude takes us a little closer to the nub of truth, but it would all be little more than foot-tapping spectacle if we didn’t care about the person at the heart of the story. And on that score, Fletcher faced his biggest obstacle of all: Elton John is not an automatic “like” — even if you love his music.

In his heyday, he always seemed a little aloof and needy. A showboat, a diva, the spiritual  lovechild of Liberace and Elvis Presley, Elton John didn’t inspire girls to pin his picture in a locker. But they would still go home after school and stack his records on the turntable, listening to Daniel and Your Song until the grooves wore out.

We bring so much of our feeling to the mix, that all Fletcher had to do was find someone empathetic enough to bridge the gap, and translate our warm nostalgia into “likeable” human form. Miraculously, he finds it in Egerton, an actor coming off the flop of Robin Hood — and who also stirs the same kind of overall ambivalence when it comes to being a “likeable” personality.

Rocketman could have been a significant dud, and yet, it takes all these potential negatives and turns them into jet propulsion. Fletcher and Hall find just the right mix of music to drama, flaws to fleeting heroism, and sympathy to disgust. Then he puts it all under the pressure of lights and rolling cameras, and suddenly we’re somewhere else.

Rocketman could have been a significant dud, and yet, it takes all these potential negatives and turns them into jet propulsion. Fletcher and Hall find just the right mix of music to drama, flaws to fleeting heroism, and sympathy to disgust. Then he puts it all under the pressure of lights and rolling cameras, and suddenly we’re somewhere else.

Egerton eventually pulls us into the capsule and we take a ride into the surreal reaches of success, excess, and the vast spaces it creates between souls. It’s a familiar arc to go along with familiar songs. And yet, the blasted success of Rocketman is that we arrive at an entirely new place. Egerton reinterprets the songs with an actor’s ability to find the dramatic beats and articulate the words. At times, it makes you ache for the eargasmic originals, but for the purposes of the film, it’s a brilliant distillation of character delivered in the most honest, and original, way possible.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, May 30, 2019

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Review: Rocketman

User Rating

4.1 (27 Votes)

Summary

4Score

Director Dexter Fletcher swallows some of the uglier truths about the arena rock sensation that defined the 1970s in an entertaining spectacle that brings real feeling to what many considered a pop music sausage factory. Rocketman could have been a significant dud, and yet, it takes all these potential negatives and turns them into jet propulsion. Fletcher and Hall find just the right mix of music to drama, flaws to fleeting heroism, and sympathy to disgust. Then he puts it all under the pressure of lights and rolling cameras, and suddenly we’re somewhere else. - Katherine Monk

1 Reply to "Rocketman showers glitter on Elton John’s glorious whole"

  • Susan Carroll June 3, 2019 (3:42 pm)

    well written (as usual)

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