Arts and Lifestyle Wednesday Presented by The Exit Room of Lee's Summit-"Rocketman"'s Entertainingly Erratic Flight
I’m pretty sure I have never viewed a film, or certainly reviewed one, that provides a greater challenge than the Elton John biopic “Rocketman”. As audacious and flamboyant as the man himself, the film swings and sways in a wildly uneven ride on all levels. Dexter Fletcher is the director, yes, the same man who took over and completed “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I have steered clear of that film due to my knowledge of the complete lack of historical accuracy of the movie, although since about every other person on my transatlantic flights last month was watching it on the plane, I almost feel like I have seen it.
That being said, Fletcher is clearly a man with some talent, but he seems hell bent in this case to try and throw it all on the screen. The best parts of “Rocketman” are the least audacious. The film is told in flashback, opening with Elton (Taron Egerton) walking into rehab in an outrageous stage costume, even by his standards. He reluctantly starts to tell the tale of his life, beginning with the frosty air of his childhood home. Schoolboy Reggie Dwight lives with his self-absorbed mom (Bryce Dallas Howard), emotionally distant dad (Steven McIntosh), also physically often away from home for military duty, and his doting grandmother (Gemma Jones), who provides the only real substantive and loving relationship.
His father loves jazz, but doesn’t want to share his musical passion, or anything else for that matter, with him. But Reggie proves nonetheless to be a prodigy, who can pick up the most complicated piano pieces by ear. He gets a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Arts, but his real interest is rock and roll. Easily the best production number in the film is the teenage Reggie (Kit Conner) rolling out “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” ,with it morphing into the Egerton version of Reggie by the end.
It should be made abundantly clear that this is a full-blown musical, and this first production number is one of several, with many other songs also propelling the action. In fact, 22 songs are featured at least in part. The pub rocker also illuminates other aspects of the film, including the fact that the songs are wildly out of chronology, obviously for instance “Saturday” was written years later. If you want to enjoy the film, you better let that aspect go, it happens over and over.
Most of the true production numbers fall flat, especially ones where another character is allowed to sing a part. The use of the songs incorporated more realistically into the action fare far better, like “Crocodile Rock” ,at Elton’s breakout performance at Hollywood’s Troubadour Club. That compelling scene completes the most satisfying portion of the movie, the now Elton’s rise to fame and the growth of his musical and personal relationship with Bernie Taupin. Excellently played by Jamie Bell, Taupin is the desperately needed down-to-earth character amidst the maelstrom all around. While not returning his romantic affection as Taupin is straight, he clearly loves his musical partner.
Love in Elton’s life is elusive, and we are beaten over the head with that the entire film. It is the clear theme of the picture, (of which John was the executive producer) that all of the wild misbehavior, drug and alcohol use, and rampant sexual antics are the result of the emptiness caused by the callousness of others.
I have likely waited too long to get to the performance of Taron Egerton. He is excellent in the film, even when what he is given to work with isn’t. Unlike Rami Malek in “Rhapsody”, Egerton sings the part, and does so well, and often. He does not try to mimic Elton exactly, but he does sounds enough like him, and his versions of the songs work. His more emotional dramatic fare is effective even when the writing fails him, which isn’t rare.
The Troubadour gigs rockets (pun intended) Elton to stardom and the scene itself has him soaring into the air, the first use of fantasy sequences in some of the musical numbers, which works sporadically. Hell, the whole film works sporadically, as I noted at the beginning. From the giddiness of the Troubadour gig, we then get a lengthy dose of the musical successes and personal excesses. Again, much is fueled by Elton’s complicated romance with John Reid, (a perfectly slick and oily Richard Madden) who eventually takes over as Elton’s manager.
As portrayed in the film, Reid is manipulative, Machiavellian, and unfaithful, and is the clear villain of the piece, fueling the downward spiral of our hero. And spiral he does, over and over. The film isn’t that long, checking in a minute over two hours, but the descent feels laborious, and certainly could, and should, have been trimmed.
Amidst some truly fine musical and creative moments, the dramatic tale is pretty torturous. Elton desperately wants his family’s affection and approval and doesn’t come close to getting it. The multiple scenes illuminating that, and the rehab sequences are strained, even though Egerton manfully tries to make them stand up.
As you might imagine, the costume design would be an assignment to fight for, and Julian Day pulls it off brilliantly, not just with the garish costumes that John wears on stage, but in the sixties, seventies, and eighties clothing. The film definitely is a visual feast.
As I said at the outset, this movie is as wildly all over the map and uneven as you can possibly imagine. My wife and I enjoyed the film, yet could spend the entire ride home pointing out its deficiencies. Too much of a good thing in some cases, too much of a bad thing in others, but pretty much interesting throughout, “Rocketman” is a compellingly complicated mess of a mainly enjoyable ride.
Clink Scale 6.9