Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Rocketman: Review

Rocketman opens with Elton John crashing a meeting for recovering addicts. Dressed in a orange jumpsuit, heart-shaped glasses, devil-horn headgear and giant wings, he announces that he’s been addicted to alcohol, drugs, sex and shopping. Before you’re done shaking your head at the triteness of the device, though, the film opens up. Elton (played by Taron Egerton) sees his younger self in a corner. He starts singing. The boy sings too. And the scene changes, just like that, to 1950s England, with everyone on the street dancing to “The Bitch Is Back".

Dexter Fletcher’s film really only has this one trick – but it uses it well enough to get by. Time and again, a scene slipping into sentiment or lethargy is saved by near-seamless transition into a musical number. “Rocket Man" starts off in a swimming pool, moves through a hospital (albeit one interpreted, Fosse-style, through dance) and ends up in a concert. “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting" does a neat time jump. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" gives the weary opening lines not to Elton but to his long-time writing partner, Bernie Taupin.

The rest is not too different from that other British rockstar film, the one Fletcher helped finish after director Bryan Singer was fired. Difficult childhood, precocious talent, substance abuse, isolating fame – the beats are familiar, as is the puzzling assumption that the viewer should feel sorry for Dionysian rock stars if they spend most of the film feeling sorry for themselves. Still, there are significant gains over Bohemian Rhapsody. Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall are more successful in making the supporting characters register, aided by tart performances by Bryce Dallas Howard (as Elton’s mother) and Richard Madden (as his manager and lover), and a soulful Jamie Bell as Taupin. Elton's sexuality is treated, by big studio film standards at least, with some forthrightness. And Egerton is a more intriguing, mercurial Elton than Rami Malek’s dead-eyed imitation of Mercury.

The musical numbers are energetic, but it’s difficult not to wish that someone like Edgar Wright, or whoever does the dance setpieces for TV’s Legion., had been unleashed on this material. There’s been a surprising resurgence of the Hollywood musical, but apart from Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, recent films have been high on technique and low on imagination (the situation isn’t much different in Hindi cinema). If there are going to be modern musicals, there should also be reconsiderations of the form. When young Elton and his father, mother and grandmother sing, in turn, successive lines from “I Want Love", it’s an old trick used for no discernible reason, and the emotion is lost.

At the end of the film, there’s a scene where the younger Elton embraces the older, ravaged one – a idea that plays out as mawkishly as it ought to. I was reminded of Get On Up, a 2014 film about the American soul singer James Brown, which also crosscuts between younger and older versions of Brown, but with less self-pity. I felt I understood something fundamental about Brown after watching that film, whereas Rocketman is an enjoyable snapshot of Elton John the showman and a shallow ode to poor, loveless Reggie Dwight.

This review appeared in Mint.

No comments: