Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Review: "Rocketman"

There’s a lot to like about “Rocketman,” a movie that very much wants you to like it about a man who spent a lifetime making likable music. It’s the life story of pop singer Elton John, which he produced himself after trying for two decades to get it made.

That’s a very Oprah thing to do, and watching the movie reminds me of that “O” magazine where she puts herself on the cover of every issue. It’s an enjoyable flick, as long as you understand it’s a great big ol’ narcissism pie.

Of course this film will be compared to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was a better movie about a better singer from last year. Taron Egerton plays Elton and sings the songs himself, despite not much looking or sounding like him. For example, he repeatedly refers to himself as fat, then he takes his shirt off and it looks like the usual sculpted Hollywood bod.

It’s a solid turn, though I didn’t emotionally connect to this character like I did “Rhapsody.”

The film, directed by Dexter Fletcher (who worked with Egerton on “Eddie the Eagle”) from a script by Lee Hall of “Billy Elliott” fame, is pitched more like a Broadway musical than a conventional biopic. People will suddenly walk out of their scene into a musical number, using Elton’s sprawling catalogue of pop hits to carry the story.

Of course, Elton didn’t write his songs to be part of a coherent narrative, so some of the lyrics are changed around or very different arrangements provided. It mostly works, but sometimes it doesn’t.

We start with Elton entering an addiction group therapy having walked out of a performance wearing one of his signature extravagant stage outfits, something that looks half an angel and half a devil. He lays out his confession that he’s an alcoholic, drug and sex addict, bulimic and shopaholic. Then we flash back to his life story, starting at childhood but mostly taken up with his 20s and 30s.

At first he’s arrogant and in denial, but as the film goes on pieces of his costume fall off, and he gets more real.

Born Reginald Dwight, his childhood was unhappy, ping-ponging between parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) who openly loathed each other and often took out their frustrations on the shy, bespectacled kid who showed a talent for piano. His grandmother (Gemma Jones) is the only one who openly encourages him.

He grows into an awkward teen who learns the music biz backing up American soul acts touring the U.K. in the late 1960s. “You’ve got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be,” one of them advises.

The arc of his life changes when John is introduced to Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and they go on to form a half-century songwriting partnership. Elton had a genius for melodies but was bad with words, which Bernie supplied ably. It’s a tender, brotherly relationship with a brief hint of romance in the beginning.

If “Bohemian Rhapsody” was criticized for glossing over its main character’s homosexuality, “Rocketman” puts it front and center. It’s the central theme of Elton’s struggle in life, trying to be what others want instead of being true to himself. This plays out in a haze of drug-fueled montages as he performs for massive concert crowds in between waking up in strange places.

Fletcher sends his camera flying around his subject, with each turn of the piano resulting in a new costume change to denote the passage of time. It makes for a breezy aesthetic, but also tends to brush over pivotal events like his brief, disastrous 1980s marriage to a woman he had just met.

The other major relationship is John Reid (Richard Madden), who became Elton’s boyfriend and manager. It’s an extraordinarily vicious portrayal, depicting Reid as a soulless manipulator who was willing to sacrifice his client/lover’s health and well-being to further his own ends. Their initial hook-up is probably one of the most scorching gay sex scenes we’ve seen in a mainstream movie.

I liked “Rocketman” but walked out of it feeling like I didn’t know Elton John any better than I did going in. Ever the showman, he shows us his self-destructive side, but only the parts he knows will dazzle.

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