Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 31, 2019 5:01 pm 
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"Rocketman" is so busy details get lost, but it's a splendidly enjoyable spectacle

Everyone starts out by comparing the new Elton John biopic, Rocketman, with last year's of Freddie Mercury, starring the Oscar-winning Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody. (Nice titles.) Then they catch themselves and say, no. Even though both are about huge British pop stars and both directed (or finished) by Dexter Fletcher, Rocketman is a musical biopic, which isn't that common, and which the other one isn't. Rami Malik doesn't sing at all. He only perfectly mimes. A musical is a kind of entertainment that's different. The singing and dancing interludes temper the melodrama.

Another similarity often missed: both these are biopics of big pop stars who were gay. Rocketman outdoes Bohemian Rhapsody in this as in so many other respects: it's more explicitly gay, because its subject was (and is). Is it more original? Not otherwise, no. Does it have more memorable scenes? Maybe not. Rocketman follows the music biopic template to the letter. The whole unhappy genius artist thing has been done to death. Nevertheless, Rocketman is pretty great. At the center of it, as Elton John, is Taron Egerton, who has an explosive, exciting energy. His musical performances are awesome, effortlessly conveying that Elton was an emotional fireball and a performing wonder. None of this music engages me. But the success, the emotion, the spectacle constantly do. (The staging and the costume design are important costars of this movie.) Even though Rocketman isn't a truly memorable musical biopic, it's a continually enjoyable one.

The fact that it's a musical is a saving grace. The dreary downbeat side is happier when leavened with a tune, especially when a whole crowd on screen starts singing and dancing along. If you can sing about your sorrows that's not weepy, it's operatic. It's not that the musical numbers are so wonderful. But, like the whole movie, they're extravaganzas. Even when the young Reggie (as he was then) was ten, gets a big song-and-dance number in the street. The young Reggie (Matthew Illesley, followed by Kit Connor). is great. he fades away too soon. His scenes stick in the mind, because they come first. The young Elton John is depicted as a prodigious talent, with perfect pitch, and a photographic musical memory. He can listen to a Mozart concerto, and then play it. What makes him ditch classical after studying on a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music isn't explained. It just happens.

Young Elton/Reggie's prodigious beginnings are almost incidental. The big focus is the lousy childhood, the withholding father, who won't touch him, and won't let him touch his jazz records. Jazz records there were. Maybe that's how classical came to fall behind in the boy's affections. The little fumed oak lower middle class house is full of repression and low on warmth.

And we're ready for the gloomy memories because, in a framing device so cliched it seems original, Elton's narrating everything to the movie version 12-step meeting - om a "share" lasting two hours- that he enters in an outfit outlandish even by his standards: glittering cape, helmet with satanic horns, huge angel on his back.

The genius singer-songwriter-performer-showman meets the various people in his life, immediately becomes jaw-droppingly rich and famous. His abuse of alcohol, cocaine, and every other drug that comes to hand grows, he is more and more miserable, more and more famous, rich, and successful. He crashes - several times, including diving suicidally into his pool at a party full of drugs - winds up in the hospital; may or may not have failed to turn up for a major gig. He gets into Recovery, cleans out at a clinic in a vast manor house as impressive as one of his mansions and - then it's all over. His story's over now. He's had a gazillion hits, made a gazillion pounds, lost hair, put on weight, gotten married, then quickly divorced, burned bridges and staged reconciliations and now - he's fine. "He still has shopping issues," a closing title says.

There is no time to go into depth. Rocketman doesn't even have a memorable extended scene like the breakup with the manager (same manager) in Bohemian Rhapsody. But there are plenty of encounters between Elton and John Reid (Richard Madden), his manager and witholding lover. The enduring warm relationship is with Bernie Taupin, his longtime lyricist, and the reliable, likable Jamie Bell is the solidest, warmest presence in the film. Edgerton, like Rami Malek last year, is going to be newly visible in the world of entertainment. Fletcher, whose acting credits number over a hundred (though he's always be the Young Caravaggio to me), directing ones four, will get to direct more films, if he wants to.

Rocketman, 121 mins., debuted at Cannes (Out of Competition) May 16, 2019, and has opened in many countries, entering US theaters May 31. Metascore 73.

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