A review of the film Rocketman by: Kurt von Behrmann
Brief Synopsis: A biopic about singer songwriter Sir Elton John’s rise to International Stardom.
Biopics of contemporary musicians follow a specific story arc. Born into humble beginnings and raised by dysfunctional families they struggle, work hard and then achieve overwhelming fame. As soon as the success arrives, excess, alienation and addiction follow. The journey ends with a triumphant redemptive return to the spotlight.
The template for these films is a cinematic treatment of an episode of “Behind The Music.” In an attempt to freshen up the formula, Rocketman begins with a resplendent Sir Elton John decked in orange feathers and devil horns walking down a long corridor. His walk ends not with a stage, but with a support group. Although the framing device feels like exactly what it is, a contrivance, at least the film makers are trying something to break up the usual narrative.
Whatever opinions, you may have about Rocketman, you cannot deny that Taron Egerton gives a captivating performance as John from insecure struggling musician to a lonely megastar. In a wise move, he does his own singing. The result makes for some of the film’s most successful moments; Egerton singing. He has avoided the pitfalls of portraying a recognized person by not relying of over exaggeration. There are points where you become lost in the illusion because the actor has created such a convincing facsimile.
Where the film starts to show signs of stress are where we are given way too much time with a young Elton and far too little time witnessing the changes success brings. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, also directed by Dexter Fletcher, where we actually see the musicians crafting their songs in the studio, we have very little film time devoted to John’s creative process, or inner workings.
The effort spent on John’s childhood starts to feel as if he has an axe to grind, rather than tell an effective story. Clearly there are still some deep-seated resentments still here. The portrait he creates of his mother and father are, to say the least, extremely unflattering. Grandmother does get a hall pass for being supportive. She is the only person in this outfit capable of providing any love, or even warmth.
His mother is painted as self-centered, cold and slutty. His father is an arctic wasteland of a man absent of discernable emotions. No doubt there is pain here, but the point is made so often as to be redundant.
I am more than willing to allow a film like this to play fast and furious with the truth. This is a biopic, not a fact-based documentary. I can accept songs being played out of chronological order. What is harder to accept is that some of the songs do not advance the story line as well as others in John’s dense catalogue.
The critically acclaimed and commercially successful “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirty Cowboy” is rich with songs that could easily propel this storyline. The entire album is autobiographical in nature. Why more songs of this type were not used is puzzling.
John has always had a strong ear for melody. But some of these songs are misplaced given the context in which they are placed. It is almost as if there were a mandate to cram as many hits as possible, even if it means shorting truly moving songs to just a few bars. “Daniel” is unjustifiably given little screen time as if it were lesser material.
Another odd creative choice is the levitation scene when John plays the legendary “Troubadour.” This performance building moment. In this scene John and his audience are levitated, literally lifted by the music into the air. Rather than support the music, this visual effect distracts from it.
Had they been true to the realty of his performances, John played mainly slower tempo material. His sets were mainly ballads, a real strength of his. Considering that this was at the height of the singer songwriter period, think Neil Young, Carol King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, CSN and sometimes Y, I would have thought something moving might have been a better choice.
Here again, Bohemian Rhapsody let the music do the heavy lifting with the visuals in support of the material. Just the opposite happens here where the music is in a tug of war with the dance numbers and visuals.
At times, Rocketman feels like a demo for a Broadway musical rather than a complete film. The fantasy elements are such that it almost feels too light in some areas and too heavy in others.
One thing the P.R. for the film have made much ado over is the homosexuality present. To be honest, you will see greater and far more explicit gay content on H.B.O. than you will here. Rocketman does not gloss over the gay content, but it is not presented in any overt way either. The same holds true of the excesses like John’s eating disorder, shopping addiction, sexual additions and substance abuse. It is there, but not considered in any great detail.
If you are expecting a film that showcases the nitty gritty of life on the road, the excesses of stardom or the inner torments of a talented figure in music, you maybe disappointed. This is not an examination of a man’s life. It is a celebration of one in song and dance.
If anything, Rocketman is the musical version of Sir Elton John’s life presented with vibrant colors, musical numbers and a considerable amount of showmanship and razzle dazzle. The aim of this biopic is to see the artist as a colorful treasure above and beyond the normal world. A Phoenix that can rise out of his own ashes. As pure entertainment, this biopic manages to hit the right notes most of the time.
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