Saturday, June 8, 2019

THE BALLAD OF CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: a review of "Rocketman"

Screenplay Written by Lee Hall
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
*** (three stars)

First things first. It is an exceedingly better, more inventive, imaginative film than anything we saw in Bryan Singer's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (2018), his award winning, box office bonanza biopic, such as it was, of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, a film I was enormously disappointed with. But that being said, "Rocketman," the biopic and self-described musical fantasy of the life of Elton John as directed by Dexter Fletcher, who incidentally completed "Bohemian Rhapsody" once Singer was fired from that film's troubled production, is not the high flying success I wished for it to be either.

Now this is not to say that "Rocketman" was necessarily a disappointment and it is not remotely a bad film and in turn, it is not a great one either. That said, Dexter Fletcher has indeed crafted an unusual, unorthodox, often dazzling, often treacly film that did house a certain nuance and conceptual depth that "Bohemian Rhapsody" botched over and again. But it was often also an awkward film too--one that smacked of existing as more of a jukebox musical, a primer for Elton John's Las Vegas residency performances rather than an actual movie, a tactic which did indeed dilute the emotional impact for me.

Focusing upon the time period from his early life through the early/mid 1980's, "Rocketman"  opens with titanic, seemingly on top of the world music superstar Elton John (Taron Egerton), fully adorned within the red devil costume from his rock concerts, storming into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, after plummeting to his rock bottom as he is consumed with alcoholism, drug, spending and sex abuse, and rage issues.

As he begins to explain and explore how he has arrived at this point in his life, the film takes us back to his unhappy childhood, under his given name of Reginald "Reggie" Dwight (played by Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley, respectively), complete with his uninvolved, often absent, taciturn Father, Stanley (Stephen Mackintosh) a Royal Air Force officer and his depressingly cold Mother, Shelia Eileen (Bryce Dallas Howard). If it were not for the warmth and grace of his Grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones), Reginald would never have known love at all. 

During the fallout of the dissolution of his parents' marriage, Reggie takes up an interest in the piano, begins studies at the Royal Academy Of Music and also discovers the power of rock and roll. All of these experiences are stepping stones that led not only to the formation of Bluesology, a combo Reggie (now portrayed by Egerton) performed at local pubs with, but also his fateful meeting with budding lyricist Bernie Taupin (a strong Jamie Bell) and Reggie's adoption of the name and new identity of "Elton John."

From here, the film is a rocket ride indeed as we are propelled through Elton John's rise to super-stardom with one high flying radio hit after another, sold out stadiums, riches, wealth, global fame and outlandish costumes galore. And yet, the yellow brick road is not always painted with gold bricks as Elton John struggles with his closeted homosexuality, a dark, secret affair with the duplicitous, abusive music manager John Reid (Richard Madden), a downward spiral into all manner of debauchery, seemingly bottomless anger and suicide attempts--all fueled by his intense desire to find love--the love, his Grandmother and Bernie Taupin notwithstanding, that has largely eluded him throughout his life, honest, true and wholly accepting.   

As I ruminate over "Rocketman," I am unable to not think about the most curious odyssey of Dexter Fletcher as he, in fact, was the original director of "Bohemian Rhapsody"...that is, until the studio in question rejected the screenplay he had, which was decidedly much darker, more explicit and R rated than the considerably safer, tamer, PG 13 version that was delivered and that Fletcher completed after the aforementioned firing of Bryan Singer.

With "Rocketman," it is easy to gleam precisely what Fletcher would have brought to the table with "Bohemian Rhapsody," and what he was finally able to achieve was a film experience that was unquestionably and refreshingly more daring, yet at the same time, it did indeed not wish to color outside of the cinematic lines too boldly for fear of alienating that mass appeal. So, Fletcher, I felt, kind of wanted to have it both ways, which I do think is achievable but also for me, one that did water things down when the whole experience could existed at a full on boil. 

While the film length confessions-at-an AA meeting format was more than a little corny for my tastes, it did, however, possess a certain classic more melodrama conceit that does work fairly well with the Elton John mythology. Furthermore, what this format did accomplish well was to be a music biopic while essentially eschewing with the music biopic format, and ultimately, Fletcher was then able to circumvent all of the obstacles that became the very worst elements that impeded the success of "Bohemian Rhapsody" so tremendously, most notably, all of the historical and factual inaccuracies throughout in favor of decisions that invented "drama" rather than just leaning upon the inherent drama in the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen.

As this is a film that does exist within the mind of Elton John taking stock of his life, Dexter Fletcher's "Rocketman" is, at its core, is a film about memory, and since memories are not always reliable, especially a man's memories now muddled with time, anger, heartache and a variety of addictions, we are dealing not with strict facts but the emotional facts of Elton John's life. Any factual liberties taken within "Rocketman" are purposeful as events may or may not have happened in the exact way as presented in the film, but what we see, and what we feel are designed to give us an impression for what it may have felt like to be in Elton John's platform shoes. That is where the drama exists and in doing so, the film remains emotionally honest where "Bohemian Rhapsody" failed consistently and inexcusably.

Was the genesis of "Your Song" really concocted, nearly in full and instantaneously, at Elton's childhood home as depicted so lovingly in the film? Maybe...maybe not. But, perhaps this is what it felt like. A wonderful sequence set during the early 1970's at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles, depicts Elton John, and the audience, being literally lifted off of the ground during his performance, something that may truly been what it felt like at the time it happened for real. A wild later sequence set during an orgy again may have been what it felt like rather than being literally real. The deeply vertigo inducing "Pinball Wizard" sequence, so dizzying it was difficult for me to fully watch it, was also quite perfect as the images made you feel what Elton John himself had to have been feeling during his 1970's heydey as he was the center of the swirling cyclone of fame, success and turmoil.

Even better is the film's true storytelling core as "Rocketman" is indeed a tale of the cycle of abuse and the lengths it took to break that cycle within John himself as he rebuilt himself psychologically and emotionally after the damage done by his parents and his manager. Fletcher often utilizes the tactic of having the adult Elton John interact with the child Reginald Dwight, again an emotional truth as presented through all manner of dream sequences and suicide attempt driven hallucinations--inducing a great one set within an ocean like swimming pool as adult Elton sings "Rocket Man" alongside the child Reginald, who sits at the bottom of the pool with an air bubble around his head. 

For all of the razzle dazzle, and furthermore, it cannot be overstated how important it was that the film did not exist as remotely as "straight-washed" as "Bohemian Rhapsody," Dexter Fletcher is no Ken Russell, so to speak, the Herculean filmmaker behind orgiastic films like his adaptation of The Who's "Tommy" (1975) and his dangerously unhinged biopic of Franz Liszt with "Lisztomania" (1975)-for whether Russell succeeded or failed artistically, he was utterly fearless and uncompromising with his cinematic visions...and he never blinked.  

To that end, "Rocketman," as unorthodox as it often is, does stay in fairly safe territory instead of  being the art film high wire act that it could have been, therefore keeping it as a film that is not in the same league as films like Bob Fosse's relentless "All That Jazz" (1979), Milos Forman's astonishing "Amadeus" (1984), Oliver Stone's operatic "The Doors" (1991), Todd Haynes' loosely veiled David Bowie/glam rock era/homosexual awakening saga "Velvet Goldmine" (1998) as well as his largely ahead of the curve Bob Dylan pastiche "I'm Not There" (2007), which featured no less than seven actors portraying pieces of the Dylan persona and finally Don Cheadle's underseen, undervalued "Miles Ahead" (2015), his searing portrait of the the artist Miles Davis during his self-imposed, drug infused sabbatical when he did not create.

Certainly, this is not to suggest that a musical biopic styled film cannot be artistically driven and work on mass appeal as Taylor Hackford's terrific, Oscar winning "Ray" (2004) about the life and times of Ray Charles, can attest. Yet what all of these aforementioned films can equally attribute to their successes, and what I felt to be lacking in "Rocketman" was a strict attention to its own inherent tonality and full attention to what sort of a film does it want itself to be.

As I have previously stated, I often felt what Flethcher presented in "Rocketman" was, overall, a tad awkward. Did this film wish to be a rock opera or a classic MGM musical or a stage musical or a hybrid or something entirely different? There are sequences where characters sing directly to each other as if in either a rock opera or classic MGM musical or a stage musical and sometimes the tactic works and other times, it just doesn't.

And mostly, everything felt, a tad too often, to be a film akin to Julie Taymor's dream vision of The  Beatles' music with "Across The Universe" (2007), a wildly inventive film that unfortunately sagged under its own ambitions, and the reality that Taymor added one Beatles song after anther and another even when it made no narrative sense whatsoever.  And therefore, it was the jukebox quality of "Rocketman" that keep it at arms length a bit for me as the addition of songs just to add them, felt like mass appeal pandering rather than actual storytelling.   

The same uneven quality could also be descriptive towards the film's performances as well. Where Jamie Bell, Richard Madden and even Stephen Graham as British music publisher and label head Dick James were all excellent for instance, Bryce Dallas Howard, try as she might, certainly struggled with her English accent, thus keeping the fullness of her performance off-kilter.

But I do have to turn my attention to Taron Egerton in the film's leading role as Elton John and wile he ran rings around what we saw with Rami Malek's work as Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody," I wouldn't entirely call it a home run either. is an extremely daring, swing for the fences choice to have Egerton, at his own insistence, perform all of his own singing in the film, especially as he attempts to emulate the now iconic singing voice of Elton John, and that element of his performance is a huge risk that paid off handsomely. But singing in your own voice is not a full performance either.

Now, this is not to say that Egerton can't act. He most certainly can and he often does tap into some true, primal emotional territory as he brings John's story and inner world to vivid life with high wattage energy, a strong physicality and yes, his strong singing voice. But also, in other aspects, Egerton's performance is a bit one-note as he has not yet developed a greater nuance to convey a wider emotional reach. In essence, there are more ways to convey anger, confusion, and spiraling out of control than just yelling and screaming your dialogue at full throttle, a technique Egerton leaned on a bit heavily as the film wore on and that too also kept the film at arms length for me. Perhaps this was how he was directed or perhaps not. Even so, he kept reaching for the stars and I deeply appreciate him for trying at his most valiant.

Better yet to try and take risks and to not try at all. When it was all said and done, Dexter Fletcher's "Rocketman" was a good film I think I appreciated more than I actually liked...but as I ponder over it now, I wonder if it was perhaps a little better than I am giving it credit for. Regardless, as a cinematic piece of the on-going Elton John mythology, the film does make for a fine addition to the canon and i this worth re-visiting.

But, I think I'll just stick primarily to the albums I have loved for almost the entirety of my life instead.

Saturday, June 1, 2019


I wish to see this film right now!!!

In our time of sequels, prequels, franchise, remakes, reboots and re-imaginings, I have decried the plethora of these films at the expense of absolutely every other kind of film that could be made for movie lovers, like myself and as I would gather, for you as well. Yes, I loved "Avengers: Endgame" and you know, I am just salivating with anticipation for "Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker" this Christmas. But that being said, I have no need for those types of films each week, as the diversity of what we can all experience in the movies decreases tremendously, therefore hurting audiences and the movies as an art form overall.

Basically, there are times when I just want to see movies about human beings. And most of all, I wish to see films that are original.

So, when I first saw the trailer for "Yesterday," the latest film from Director Danny Boyle, about a young musician who awakens to find himself in a world where not one soul has ever heard of The Beatles other than himself, I nearly jumped out of my seat because, here was a film I had not seen well as one where my love affair with The Beatles could hopefully continue beautifully. I am hoping the end result proves itself to being a veritable magical mystery tour.

In addition to that film, I am hoping to check out...

As I have been writing about in recent years, especially, representation is everything! And the fact that "Late Night," starring Emma Thompson as a veteran late night comedy talk show hostess and Mindy Kaling, as her new staff writer (and who also wrote this film), having these viewpoints already makes me perks up my cinematic ears, so to speak. So, I am looking forward to this one.
The trailer for this film, from first time Director Joe Talbot, was haunting in its elegance and it deeply intrigued me. I hope it makes it to my city so I am able to check it out.

And with the screening of "Rocketman" awaiting me this weekend, I am thinking that this makes for a realistic list of potential films to see for the month. So, as always, wish me well and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!