Monday, May 27, 2024

‘Rocketman’ Takes Us Down the Yellow Brick Road

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I loved this movie. I loved every little bit of it. Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is a biography about Elton John, born Reggie Dwight. Part jukebox musical and stream of consciousness with the result being it’s one of the rare biopics which vibrates with an intense unyielding ruckus of a man trying to kill himself with fame and drugs. Oh yeah, the songs are pretty catchy too.

Hollywood has for the past few years attempted, albeit timidly, to resurrect the musical. They’ve done so by always going, at best, medium speed. Dexter Fletcher has broken away from the town’s timidity and made a great leap forward. We may still have a little ways to go but Fletcher’s Rocketman is doing a heck of a job getting us to where we need to be.

Fletcher’s gone and made a great big, cliched, mess which bristles with life. The film makes us forgive all its flaws and just hum along with the music. It helps that the movie isn’t interested in any kind of act structure. The film is more curious about which Elton John number can best be used to depict the current emotion of that stage of his life.

Rocketman doesn’t chain itself to any kind of chronology, as far as the soundtrack is concerned. “I Want Love” is from his 2001 album. But it’s used to show us the despair and loneliness of the Dwight household. Young Reggie (Kit Connor) sits on the stairs as he mournfully sings a verse. Only to be followed by his brash and unsentimental mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard).

Even his father Stanley (Steven Macintosh) and grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) sing along. If I have any complaints about Rocketman is that every other musical number has Elton (Taron Egerton) singing by himself about the people or incidents around him. Whereas the “I Want Love” number, young Connor is joined by his whole family. Each one taking a verse as they sing into the darkness. A stark moment where Fletcher forces us to look into the loneliness of each character.

Howard is especially surprising as she plays the manipulative but distant mother. So often cast as the “feminine ideal”- either soft-spoken and maternal or soft-spoken and successful who can run in heels. But here she plays a woman wounded by her own life to such a degree she can’t see or care what she’s doing to her son’s.

Her voice is the perfect audio encapsulation of a sneer. In any other movie, it would seem comical or theatrical. But Howard fits right in with the rest of the cast and almost dances away with the movie.

Like all biographies, Rocketman shows us the rock star as a child with the dysfunctional family. We see him learn the piano, get accepted to the Royal Academy of the Arts, and then one night at a pub Connor transforms into Egerton as he belts out “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”.

Rocketman isn’t a biopic but an excoriation of Elton John’s demons and sins. Rocketman doesn’t have acts so much as set pieces. It’s not a story or an autobiography. At times we see scenes from Elton John’s life break out into song. Other times we delve into John’s head as we witness musical interpretations of his thoughts and emotions. The film is an unabashed exploration of Elton John’s soul.

My favorite moment involves little Reggie Dwight. Alone in his bedroom at night little Reggie reads sheets of music with a flashlight. He conducts an imaginary orchestra which he sees in the dark at the edge of the bed. As the flashlight roams across his room, we see fleeting glimpses of the orchestra playing the music.

But then he hums “Crocodile Rock”. The orchestra stops playing as they watch the boy rapturously. Rarely have I seen a film so perfectly encapsulate the inner life of a child alone mulling over his own dreams.

Soon, we meet Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), life long friend and songwriter. Of course, there’s Elton’s lover, manager, and abuser John Reid (Richard Madden). Lee Hall’s script is less interested in the inner lives of these characters and more focused on what they mean to Elton.

Hall’s framing puts Elton front and center. The film opens with Elton in full concert regalia, a glittery orange jumpsuit replete with horns and plush velvet wings, as he storms down a hallway and into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

At times like this is where Hall’s script struggles to break free of the biopic genre trappings. But what he does is lean into them while blowing them up at the same time. Yes, we usually start at the end and work our way back. But rarely do the other AA members break out into breathtaking song and dance as the walls give away to Elton’s old neighborhood only to be faced with himself as a child.

Rocketman is riddled with cliches. But they don’t come off as old and tired old screenwriting tricks rather more like genre staples acting as narrative shortcuts. It helps that Egerton puts forth a tour de force of charisma and singing to help cover up any narrative pitfalls. His smile bright and shiny but the twitching of his cheek muscles and the forlorn gaze in his eyes hint at the anger and sadness billowing beneath the surface.

Yet, the film never feels staid or gloomy. It’s alive and unpredictable at times. When it comes time for the moment in the movie for Elton to become a blackout addict, Fletcher and Hall tap dance their way into a new way of showing it. Instead of forcing us to sit through a scene where Egerton is forced to be overwrought as he battles his demons, Rocketman does what it does best.

It breaks out into song. “Pinball Wizard” has John singing and playing as he spins round and round to the point he is flung into another scene. He sits up, clothes changed, and in his L.A. home. Lost and disoriented he has no idea where he is.

Fletcher delves deep into Elton John’s neurosis and lays them bare. Beneath all the glam and showmanship is a boy who just wants his family to love him and is terrified his gayness will cost him everything. Unlike last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, also directed by Fletcher, uncredited – Rocketman revels in Elton’s gayness.

He may be in the closet but the film is not. From sex scenes to the way Elton moonily stares at Bernie or John, Fletcher allows the film to be a gay to the rafters musical. Still, and I feel I must repeat myself, Fletcher never allows the sadness to overwhelm.

Along with the cinematographer, George Richmond, Fletcher creates a surreal haunted and deeply felt and an unimaginably rapturous montage of life. Moments such as when Elton tries to kill himself by throwing himself into the pool. At the bottom, he can see little Reggie in a diving suit playing the piano.

Richmond’s camera work and Adam Murray’s choreography is reminiscent of Ken Russell. Russell most famous mainstream work was the adaption of the rock album “Tommy” by The Who. Russell’s style was a mixture of surreal and haunting. After being pulled from the pool Elton is put on a  gurney and rushed to a hospital.

Except he’s not taken to a hospital so much as a warehouse garage with no back so the Sun can shine in and the workers can break out into song and dance. Murray’s dancers and Richmond’s camera, work in tandem to create a ceaseless unpredictable dreamlike rhythm most modern musicals couldn’t find with a spotlight. At times I felt as if I was being lifted out of my seat with the sheer joy and beauty of what I was seeing.

Rocketman isn’t subtle. But who cares. It never pretends to be so why would we expect it to be. Is there a moment where a grown Elton John must confront himself as a child? Of course. Did the moment send me into weeping hysterics? You bet it did.

Matthew Margeson had the insurmountable job of re-working Elton’s music into something fitting of an Elton John musical. His rearrangements keep integrity while understanding the underlying emotion contained in each verse. I’m not the biggest Elton John fan but even I was humming the songs long after the lights came up.

Fletcher has not given us a musical where we come away knowing why Elton John is the staggering talent he is. He does not explore the methods of Elton’s musical skill. Nor does he put into context what makes Elton so unique compared to the other artist of his time. Instead, it does something far greater and infinitely more difficult.

Though it may be flashy and fantastical, the film reminds us why we listen to Elton John in the first place. Because the sadness, the loneliness, the confusion are not emotions that are strangers to you and I. Rocketman endeavors to remind us of the purpose of art is the exploration of understanding of our basic humanity.

Image courtesy of  Paramount Pictures

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