Blasting off with the new film By M.Schinke
The bitch is back, OpinionNerds!
As the opening titles render across the screen and settle, a door in the background of the frame bursts open, sending the title scattering across the screen. In stomps an imposingly large looking figure decked out in a flaming orange and bedazzeled spandex devil costume, complete with wings and horns. Treading into a group therapy session the devil sits and announces, “I know how this part works. My name is Elton Hercules John” before laying out all his various addictions. So we start with a visual metaphor and then transition into the first musical number. This is within the movies first few minutes.
And it never slows down from there!
Rocketman tells the tale of Reginald Dwight, AKA Elton John, as the singer recounts the events, loves and heartbreaks that shaped his life up to a heart attack and a stint in rehab in the 1980’s. The film is directed by Dexter Fletcher from a screenplay by Lee Hall, and stars Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, Richard Madden and Gemma Jones.
Maybe some spoiler-ish material in here. I mean, it’s a biopic – a quick Google search can spoil it. But believe me, knowing what happens and seeing HOW it happens are two very different things. But in any event, here’s your spoiler warning.
The first scene of Rocketman does exactly what a first scene should do; it let’s you know exactly what kind of movie you are going to see. In this case, what we’re going to see is bouts of brutal emotional honesty joined to imaginative musical numbers that re-contextualize some of the the singers most well known works into auto-biographical statements. Director Fletcher, who landed the plane for last years Queen bio-pic Bohemian Rhapsody, has designed and staged some truly wonderful production pieces that run the gamut from intensely personal to wildly theatrical. Personally, after seeing Rocketman, it makes me very curious how he might have approached that Queen film if he had been running the show from jump.
The films approach to telling it’s story is by framing it as exposition by Elton himself in the, “present” of the unspecified later 80’s/ early 90’s. The film uses a well worn technique for narrative recapping (also like Rhapsody) that starts in the films present, jumps back in time and plays out until we catch back up to the present at some point. It’s all presented as a real time recollection, allowing for the emphasis on the emotions at play as well as the compression of time and events. This gives the movie a built in, “excuse” not only for it’s use of musical numbers but for any lapses in fact. So while you can run home from the film and fact check it all you like, the movie itself is letting you know that’s not as important as sharing the emotions of the experience.
Eggerton’s Elton character initially presents itself as an unreliable narrator, blatantly lying to us as a part of one of the movies narrative devices – the elaborate costume he arrives in which serves as a physical representation of what he feels he has become. As the film unfolds and Elton himself gets closer to the emotional truth, the sparkly garb is dismantled piece by piece. It’s a useful visual metaphor in a film that uses several to great effect. This narrative framing allows the film the freedom to break the rules of reality and emphasize its points in several interesting ways, the most notable being how it takes iconic moments from the singers history and weaves them into the presentation (images early in the credits give you the side by side of fiction and reality). At one point it takes a photo that was captured at an opportune moment and turning it into a visual metaphor for the power of performance, while in another it takes a well known performance clip and re-purposes it to represent a different part of a songs life cycle. It’s a creative way of weaving anachronistic bits of Elton John history and iconography into the film without having to worry about that pesky issue of, “historical accuracy”.
Hall’s screenplay may somewhat follow the typical roller coaster ride of rising star, crushing fame, tragic fall and heroic resurgence that typifies the modern music bio-pic, but sometimes the container for the storytelling isn’t as important as what you fill it with. Hall’s screenplay makes sure that the central emotional issue is never far from the audiences eyes no matter what wild, fantastic or tragic situation is being presented. The movie has a very clear narrative that it follows, a simple allegory and a tight resolution. It does blow through some areas of Johns life more quickly than others, but it builds the singers troubles logically and intelligently, in my opinion. It’s very easy to understand how the character gets to the place he’s in, and just as easy to understand the choice he makes to resolve the issue. No character exists that isn’t important to the proceedings )so don’t expect a lot of random celebrity look-alikes to roam through the frame simply because the time period affords it) and no relationship is focused on longer than necessary to make a point. while there are times that can feel as if the movie is hurrying to the next musical number, it’s important to keep in mind what the films intent is when examining it.
I would love to talk about other aspects of the production such as the brilliant costumes by Julian Day that mimic or recreate some of Johns more infamous and flamboyant wraps, or the Arri Alexa captured cinematography by George Richmond (finished with a 2K DI – bleh) that just drinks up all the color from time period to time period and moves the audience through the the characters emotional states. The image has a lot of depth thanks to good framing and lighting, but I do miss that little bit of texture from the grain. The movies eye is completely subjective. It’s all from Elton’s emotional point of view, and the camera makes sure to keep us there. I would love to talk about the use of digital color manipulation to isolate images, the way the camera moves to compliment the swinging emotions of an interaction or the way some of the musical numbers have a slightly staged look like something out of a really well designed Broadway show. I’d love to talk about that, but I was so busy being caught up in the tragedy of Reginald Dwight that I just couldn’t focus much attention on those things. Not to continue to make comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody, but I feel this movie hits those points in ways the previous didn’t because it wouldn’t fully embrace the subjective and push the boundaries of it’s reality. The lonely way the camera follows Elton through a crowded party during Tiny Dancer, the staging keeps him just disconnected from the people around him, emphasizing his feeling of being abandoned by Bell’s Bernie Taupin is as melancholy as the vulnerable performance of Your Song in mother Shelia’s (Dallas-Howard) flat is intimate.
There are some elements that didn’t work as well for me though; this is unavoidable. A couple of the musical numbers suffered from what I felt were too many long, emotive reaction shots. And even though the film is all told from Elton’s perspective, so it’s about how he feels and not about, “fact”, the way it vilifies the people who hurt him seemed a bit over the top. It’s hard to tell how much of this is fact and how much is dramatized for fiction, but it’s heartbreaking none the less. Rocketman is a story about love, but it isn’t a love story. Ultimately, it’s message is that you need to love yourself and believe you are worthy of love. Without that you become so desperate to be loved that you don’t care where or how you get it, and that emptiness eats away at you from the inside. The movie illustrates where this great emptiness originated for Elton, how he attempts to medicate it and finally, his process for coming to love himself; hammering it home with what I felt was at once one of the cheesiest and most powerful moments in the movie.
Bring It Back To Me
This is a movie that could have been made in a much straighter, dramatic manner along the lines of Walk the Line or What’s Love Got To Do With It and it may have been just fine. But it would have been like any other musicians bio-pic and, if anything, I believe any biopic should bear some measure of the personality of the person it’s about. Elton John is far to large a character and far too special a creative force to just present his story like some college essay. Rocketman does more than just present the facts, or even the emotions, of Johns rocketing highs and lows. It attempts to bring you into the experience of Johns life during this time, to convey an impression of what it felt like to have those experiences. If it seems cliche at times it’s not because John’s life wasn’t unique, but because tragedy is largely universal. And while I personally could have stood the film to push the surreal vs the real much more starkly, or seen the insanity of the fantasy escalate along with his substance abuse, I know that’s asking a mainstream audience to absorb a lot.
I once had dreams of being a rock star, or at least of being famous. However after decades spent absorbing the stories of so many of these immense talents who lit up like fireworks on Christmas, only to fizzle out or self-destruct, what I have learned is that behind every great artist there is a great darkness. The tragedy is not that this pain exists, but that for some it’s simply too great to overcome. Elton John was lucky. He was able to get help facing his darkness and find peace before it ate him alive. The movie may only give you an impression of the fallout from his war with himself, but it’s enough to drive home how this pain spreads to those lose to you. Eggerton’s performance and surprisingly emotive voice singing John’s songs doesn’t necessarily create a character indistinguishable from the real Elton, but it perhaps paints a picture of the internal character of the man more than a precise recreation might have. And that’s the point of this film by design, and one of the joyful elements of cinema that I’m always happy to experience; a chance to illustrate emotions and experiences beyond creating a facade of reality. At it’s best, when the music is really rocking and the film is looking gorgeous; it’s simply out of this world.
Clever endings aren’t my bag
Rocketman is in theaters NOW!
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