Cinema Dispatch: Rocket Man

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Rocketman and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures

Directed by Dexter Fletcher

As much as I enjoy the music of Elton John, this movie has some serious hurdles to overcome, that has left me less than confident about it up to this point.  Primarily, the film feels from top to bottom like a cash-in following the success of the truly awful Bohemian Rhapsody; not just because it’s another biopic about a musician from roughly the same time period, but because they even got the pickup director of that film to make this one in its entirety.  Maybe that’s overstating things a bit as Dexter Fletcher does have a few other films under his belt, and it’s not like it’ll be THAT hard to be better than one of the worst movies of 2018, but let’s just say my expectations are firmly set to MEH right up until the very last minute.  Does this manage to stand out as the better of the two rock biopics from the Oldies station, or will the faults of Bohemian Rhapsody look downright quaint after seeing this movie?  Let’s find out!!

Elton John (Taron Egerton), also known as Reginald Dwight, is a rock and roll superstar with hit song after hit song over the last five decades, yet how many of us REALLY know about the man behind the music?  Well after storming his way into a substance abuse support group (decked out in full on Maleficent regalia in case you thought this was going to be subtle), he’s more than willing to tell us all about it!  Our story begins in the suburbs of Britain with him as a little boy starved for affection from his mother and father (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), when one day it turns out he’s a born piano player who can play songs from ear and hones his skills for many, many, years!  After a few stints playing back-up for a bunch of soul bands, he finally finds his break in the form of Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) who is a song writer in need of a musician which is just in luck because Mr. John over here needs a song writer to give meaning to his great music!  From there it’s a never ending thrill ride of overnight success, burgeoning sexuality, and the inevitable crash and burn when living the high life becomes indistinguishable from being an addict!  Will Elton John get his life back on track after losing so much to booze, pills, and drugs?  Can a musician of his immense popularity live his life openly as a gay man without shattering everything he’s worked so hard to build up?  Will we get answers to burning questions like who IS the Tiny Dancer, and why were those Crocodiles rocking?

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Wait, are the Jets in Bennie and the Jets actually JET PACKS!?

This movie was AMAZING!  There have been a few good movies this year like Avengers: Endgame, Booksmart, and Us, but nothing has hit me on such a personal emotional level as this biopic which is not easy to do since my heart is made of concrete and sarcasm, but there was just so much about Elton John’s story (at least this particular TELLING of his story) that I connected with and it knows how to keep things fun and entertaining even when dealing with issues that I’m sure plague many of us on a day to day life.  The film is vibrant and colorful while taking full advantage of the soundtrack at hand to create a musical experience that understands how to use dream logic and theatrical storytelling that makes this movie shine brighter than any other musical biopic I’ve seen except MAYBE Walk Hard and I assure you that being right up at the level is one of the highest compliments I can give a movie.  And the thing is, I feel like I’m gonna be mostly alone out here singing this movie’s praises like I was with Jupiter Ascending or Sing, the latter of which is oddly enough ANOTHER movie where Taron Egerton belts out some Elton John (and then of course there’s Kingsman 2 where Elton John inexplicable showed up for half of it), in that its flaws are apparent and its strengths feel PRETTY personal.  I know there are problems here in terms of pacing, tone, and staging!  I can tell just by watching it (and Elton John’s Executive Producer credit) that this has been cleaned up for mass consumption!  Even with all that though, I just can’t bring myself to dampen my enthusiasm because the artistry on display is an absolute joy to sit through and puts into stark relief where other biopics, that may or may not have been directed by Dexter Fletcher, come up short.  Seriously, this movie is so good that I hate Bohemian Rhapsody that much more for wasting this guy’s CLEARLY immense talent.

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Boy, did Fox back the wrong horse, or what!?

For the most part, this movie is just fun to watch!  It’s a big beautiful dorky ode to rock and roll and being an outcast, and it makes the brilliant move (one that I thought Bohemian Rhapsody should have taken) of going for broke on magical realism to make this into a true MUSICAL instead of just a movie about music.  This actually helps on so many levels, and not just in terms of spicing up the drama with awesome choreography.  Because not everything about this movie is to be taken literally, there’s a lot of leeway in terms of pacing, structure, and even the facts of the true story.  We’ll get to some of the inaccuracies later on, but the movie is framed entirely from Elton John’s perspective (complete with framing device of him telling the story), so it ends up focusing on the emotional content of rather than giving us a pseudo-documentary.  There are hardly any allusions to current events or even much of frame of reference at all as far as time is concerned.  I legitimately did not know what year any given scene was taking place in nor do I expect anyone else will unless you already know the story (in fact I’m curious how this plays if you DO know more about the events being presented here) but it ultimately doesn’t matter all that much because Taron Egerton makes you believe in this character and the beautifully staged struggles they go through.  There’s a real sense of verve and showmanship to the entire production that really makes it stand out from the crowd this year, and it doesn’t seem like a single scene was shot unless someone asked if they could make it even MORE spectacular and the answer was no.

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“More sequins, darn it!  We’re trying to make art here!!”

Now yes it does have its slower moments where things aren’t exploding in a shower of bombast and glamour, but even these work because they allow Taron Egerton and the rest of the cast to really hone in on what makes the characters tick which makes the gaudy set pieces all the more fulfilling.  I don’t know much about Elton John other than a few key tracks from his extensive library (I didn’t even know he had a writing partner who wrote most of his lyrics), but watching this movie I couldn’t help but absolutely feel for his struggles and was wholeheartedly invested in watching him overcome them.  I’m sure many of us have wondered here and there why certain celebrities or wealthy people can be so self-destructive.  After all, they have more money than any of us will ever see in our lifetime and they get to make it all doing something they love!  What could they be missing!?  This movie really captures the answer to that question unlike any movie I can recall, and it’s what I’m gonna call THE HAZE.  Whether or not you’re doing something you love or doing something you hate, if you work too hard or push yourself too far for too long, it all starts to become white noise.  You feel time slipping away more easily and bad feeling just stick around for a lot longer.  You think over and over about how you can stop this cycle without ever going through with it.  It’s just numbness all the way through and what you used to love to do (or even just your life in general) starts to feel distant and out of reach; as if you can’t even participate in the life you’re supposedly living.  I can’t say I’ve ever been a rock star (at least not yet!) but I know the feeling of seeing your recent past spread out behind you and seeing the future laid out before you with nothing much more to do than just keep going through the motions and this movie captures this brilliantly; especially how the things he does to try and lash out and break the trends simply get rolled into whatever his life has become as yet another bland entry in an infinitely repeating schedule.  Not only that, but there are genuine heart breaking setbacks that he can’t even deal with because of where he is and what is expected of him; from his turbulent relationships to his parents to the abuse he suffers from someone who’s supposed to be a source of trust and stability.  I’m guessing the true story didn’t play out as… let’s say ONE-SIDEDLY as this film portrays it, but I love how well it gets into that head space; the fuzzy edges on the camera, the constant spinning in a certain montage, and how even in his darkest moments there’s a certain amount of beauty and inspiration that keeps him going and trying to make it all work.  Best of all is the ending which I won’t really get into here, but needless to say that they couldn’t have ended this movie on a better note than the one they came up with; a note that hit me so hard that whatever minor nitpicks I had with the film just washed away as I was leaving the theater.

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I feel very seen right now…

But there are nits that we must pick, and perhaps it would be a good idea to come down from cloud nine for a bit to put things into perspective.  Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the first part of this movie where Elton John is a kid and the film doesn’t really get into the swing of things until he grows into Taron Egerton.  Sure it’s not TOO long and there are moments of brilliance in this (he fantasizes not of screaming fans in a stadium but just people admiring him with pleasant looking smiles) but I was glad when things finally got to his rising stardom.  The second act is a total haze of mesmerizing visuals and ever changing story beats which I feel work for the most part in showing his disconnected mental state, but I get the feeling I should have come into this with a lot more knowledge about the guy which would have made his journey feel a lot more cohesive.  This is not something you typically want from a biopic and great ones like Straight Outta Compton do a solid job of telling the story as well as getting into the mind of its characters, but the mind over matter approach this film takes definitely has its strong points and it certainly worked for me a lot more than I expected.  Still, if you have no idea what the story was of Elton John’s marriage, don’t expect to find the answers here.  For something that I now know took FOUR YEARS of his life, it’s in and out in a flash which is true of a lot of things in this movie.  And sure, I looked up one of those TRUE STORY VS THE BIOPIC pieces to see what they got wrong, but again I don’t mind it because the story is intentionally indulging in pseudo-realism and melodrama which makes since as it’s being told entirely from his own perspective.  That, and what WAS supposedly inaccurate was as big as say lying about Queen breaking up or the timeline of Freddy Mercury’s death.  While I wouldn’t want to tell other people how to feel about this, I’d certainly take this self-indulgent personal story over the slapdash retelling of a dead man’s life that we got in Bohemian Rhapsody.  This also extends to the fact that the movie chooses to frame Elton John’s songs around events in his life despite the fact that he didn’t write any of them; they were all written by Bernie Taupin and weren’t ABOUT Elton John.  Again, this is a RETELLING of Elton John’s life from his own perspective, so I found the implication to be less that something happened in his life that inspired him to write songs he didn’t write; rather that Bernie’s fantastic writing contains truths and emotional weight within them that can relate to the turbulent life that Elton John led.  You know, like how music is SUPPOSED to work?  We all have songs that SPEAK TO US and we listen to in certain circumstances, so Elton John doing that with his own music is, admittedly a bit narcissistic, but felt as true to this story as anything else.

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“I’m just… really hurting right now, and I was hoping you could write a song about it?”     “Sure thing, buddy.”     “Thanks.  Make it a good one!”

I usually don’t ramble this long about movies l like as I tend to have an easier time putting BAD movies into a proper analytical context than GOOD movies, so you can probably jot that down as another reason why this movie stands out in a year that hasn’t done a whole lot to inspire me.  This is utterly fantastic and I can’t recommend it highly enough to everyone; especially those who need a good pick me up or something to tell you that it can all work out even when things get REALLY rough out there. It’s got enough spectacle and bombastic set pieces that I think justifies seeing it on the big screen, if you’re on the fence about it, and frankly if this doesn’t make even half as much as Bohemian Rhapsody then I will be quite cross because this is ten times the movie that is!  EASILY!  Seriously, you had this dude on hand to clean up the mess that THAT piece of nonsense was when you could have had him make the whole thing from scratch!?  CAN THIS WORST OF ALL TIMELINES GET ANY MORE RIDICULOUS!?

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