Tuesday, June 04, 2019


On the one hand, Elton John is one of the few musicians where I do, on occasion, do a quick search on Amazon to see if there's a new album coming out any time soon, and has been a favorite for a while; on the other, I tend to be so uninterested in movies about musicians that me crossing out all the music docs on the IFFBoston schedule has become a sort of yearly tradition. It's not a hard and fast rule - Still Bill is the movie I remember most fondly from that time I went to SXSW and I went out of my way to see Bolden - but those are not guys I know, but folks I'm curious about. Elton, I've read interviews, articles, seen talk show appearances where he talks about the new album. What could a movie give me other than the annoyed feeling when Liberties Have Been Taken?

More than I thought, it turns, probably because the decision to make this a musical rather than making things performances or demos, as well as subjective as heck, lets me not worry about that. It's not really a great musical, and I suspect that's because the jukebox variety of the form is like the scene in Apollo 13 where they're trying to build something out of only what's in the capsule - you may get something effective, but seldom something elegant. It's pretty clever for what they've got to work with, and I like the way they solved some of the problems. For instance, you've got to have "Your Song" in there, because it's a classic and more or less perfect for the sweet little love song it is, but none of the relationships in the movie call for a sweet love song. So it becomes the center of a scene that shows how Elton & Bernie perform some crazy alchemy using a process that really shouldn't work. Making it an example is probably not the ideal use of a great song in a musical, but it's the best way to fit it into this particular one.

I came into this movie thinking "don't screw it up", and the people involved didn't screw it up, and it's easily a better musical than the new Aladdin. Not necessarily the highest and most exciting bas to clear, but there's a lot of movies that don't, and a couple days later, it's easier for me to come up with bits I liked than those I didn't..

Rocketman (2019)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 June 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, DCP)

That Rocketman is a biography made with the full participation of it subject is a little less concerning than it is in other cases; Elton John has seldom shied away from shied away from admitting he can be a complete mess. Indeed, some of his stories of his early career verge on black comedy, and this movie is at its best when it catches that vibe - a life of extremes that is often kind of ridiculous in its details. It doesn't always manage that, but it does often enough to be, by turns, an entertaining musical and biography.

It is, in a lot of ways, the sort of paint-by-numbers story of fame and fortune most have seen a dozen times - Elton is born Reginald Dwight and displays a natural gift for the piano early. His working-class mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and distant father (Steven Mackintosh) split, and while he proves to be a great piano player able to create a catchy tune instinctively, words don't come. Fortunately, Elton (Taron Egerton) is soon introduced to Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), a tone-deaf lyricist with a fascination for the American west who soon becomes Elton's close friend and long-time collaborator. A trip to America makes Elton a sensation - the first step to becoming the most successful recording artist of the 1970s - and also introduces him to John Reid (Richard Madden), who will become his lover and his manager, although very much the sort that is probably using the former to make money via the latter. Pile being closeted on top of that - and it's a recipe for indulging in every self-destructive vice imaginable.

If you're a fan, you've probably heard the story in many of its details; if you're not, you've probably seen the general arc of it applied to some other artist. Fortunately, Elton was flamboyant as all heck during this period, and that gives the filmmakers room to go nuts visually from the very first scene. Even if they weren't going the approach of the jukebox musical, they'd have to make peace with his huge glasses and ridiculous outfits, and they actually do very well by that: The costumes tell a story themselves, that of a guy barely out of his teens who never figured out how to be cool being thrust into the spotlight and later had invested so much of himself in entertaining that he needed to put on an absurdly happy face. The rehab-center bit that frames the movie has him literally dismantling the flashy costume he came in, and the moments that have him at his most honest have him stripped down to his underpants and maybe a bathrobe.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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