Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Glitter Bomb: Rocketman

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman.

The Elton John of the 1970s was a rock phenomenon that dominated airwaves and album sales unlike any other act of the time. His songs were a potent mix of gospel, country, and blues, and his ballads could have an almost ineffable beauty. John’s piano playing could be rumbling and syncopated as in “Take Me to the Pilot” (from the 1970 Elton John album, his debut in the States), or cascading and driving as in “Grey Seal” (from 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) or the opening of his cover of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard.” On John’s early albums, producer Gus Dudgeon provided a sound both spare and elegiac, fronting the star’s keyboard playing and employing a judicious use of strings that often soared but (almost) never cloyed. John’s songs and outrageous onstage presence, heightened by over-the-top costumes, equal parts camp and drag, connected with the audience, and Bernie Taupin’s maddeningly opaque lyrics caused the teenagers of several nations to spend hours puzzling over them while the records played on their turntables. (John’s songwriting was never as good when he tried any other partner.) Elton John the rock star could make a huge crowd boogie with abandon.

When John retired from touring for two years in 1977, he also ceased using Dudgeon as producer, and he never again achieved the artistic excellence of those wild years. Record sales ebbed as well. He made headlines in 1980 by performing in the Soviet Union, and I saw him in the same year at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre, a relatively intimate venue, accompanied only by himself and percussionist Ray Cooper. (It was my very first rock concert.) John continued to release albums after ’77, but at a much slower pace, and nothing really caught fire, until 1983, when a brand-new medium, the music video, and a softer, easy-listening sound made John a star again, starting with “I’m Still Standing,” from the album Too Low for Zero. (It’s rather astonishing how good John was pre-1977, and how bad most of his music has been since then.)

The new Elton John biopic Rocketman fortunately focuses on the late '60s and the '70s output, but ironically, director Dexter Fletcher uses an '80s MTV style (although admittedly more lush) to tell John’s story. The songs are turned into an uneasy mixture of music video and musical theater, replete with choreography. He tells the story in flashback, using the moment that John checks himself in rehab, after walking out of an arena where he was supposed to perform, still wearing his stage costume, a rhinestone-studded orange jumpsuit with matching devil horns and feathered angel wings, tromping into a group therapy session that immediately becomes all about himself. (The other members of the group never even speak.)

This approach allows for some phantasmagorical musical numbers, where lyrics are divvied up among family and friends, but it means we almost never get to experience the songs as an audience experienced them. We never see that connection John had with so many fans. And worse, we only get fragments of many of the numbers.

In replicating his first American concerts at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, John (played by Taron Egerton) pounds out “Crocodile Rock,” and in an effort to portray the ecstasy of the performance, Fletcher pauses the music and literally suspends the crowd – which levitates above the dance floor – and John, whose body floats up while his fingers remain on the keyboard. In the end credits, we see a photo of the actual John kicking out his feet, which served as the inspiration for this sequence. But John didn’t get in that position by floating. Rock and roll isn’t about floating, it’s about jumping; it’s about effort and sweat and need and desire and community and abandon, and we get none of that in this movie. There’s Elton in his glittering, rhinestone-studded Dodgers uniform in front of what looks like millions for his Dodger stadium concert, and we get only a few seconds of John holding the adoring throng rapt.

I wasn’t a fan of Bohemian Rhapsody (which, coincidentally, was finished by an uncredited Fletcher after director Bryan Singer walked off/was fired), but it at least had the good sense to give us an almost shot-by-shot reenactment of Queen’s Live Aid set, so we witnessed how Freddie Mercury related to and commanded his audience.

Jamie Bell and Taron Egerton in Rocketman.

There’s also a problem with Egerton’s work here. While his singing is fine (he doesn’t exactly sound like John, but he has a pleasing rock delivery that meshes well with the songs), and his hairpieces accurately reproduce John’s receding hair line, he’s never able to evoke John physically, to reveal any emotion or depth. In his big scene, where John phones his mother (Dallas Bryce Howard, who doesn’t bring much to the role, but then screenwriter Lee Hall [Billy Elliott, War Horse] doesn’t provide much) to tell her he’s homosexual, his face undergoes a hundred contortions, and none of them taps into anything genuine. This is the third movie I’ve seen Egerton in, having suffered through the repugnant Kingsmen: The Secret Service and the dreary Robin Hood, and he’s good-looking and comfortable in front of the camera, but he’s not an actor. (Fletcher, who’s mostly appeared in front of the camera, shifting to directing only recently, previously worked with Egerton on another biopic, 2015’s Eddie the Eagle, about the hapless Olympic ski-jumper who became famous for being terrible.)

Fletcher and Hall do a further disservice by providing a full-fledged villain for their story, John Reid. Reid was John’s first manager and, according to the film, his first male lover. He’s played by Richard Madden (Robb Stark in Game of Thrones and star of the hit British miniseries Bodyguard). The only sex scene in the movie is between Egerton and Madden, but the film’s version of Reid uses sex as a means to control Elton, in order to keep him working to pump more and more cash out of him. This may be accurate, but the portrayal is so two-dimensional that you have difficulty trusting it. All Madden lacks is a black cape and a mustache to twirl.

Rocketman does have two lovely moments, though. After the triumphant performance at the Troubadour, John and Taupin go to a party at Mama Cass’s house, in one of those beautiful L.A. canyons. Elton finds himself alone in the hip, beautiful crowd, and as he wanders in the warm, moonlit night, he sings “Tiny Dancer,” and it’s a perfect evocation of his melancholy and feeling of separateness from all the other guests. “Tiny Dancer” is one of those pop masterpieces that, as you’re listening to it, makes the world a better place, even if only for a few minutes. (And of course, the moment evokes the wonderful scene in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, where everyone on the tour bus, on some interminable drive between gigs, sings along when the song comes on the radio, their spirits lifted by its simple beauty.) The other sequence occurs earlier, when Elton sits at the piano at his family’s home and plays “Your Song” for the first time, and everyone in his cold, broken family succumbs to the beauty of the song. So does the audience.

The movie also has Jamie Bell’s performance as Bernie Taupin, providing a steadying presence for both Egerton’s John and the audience. He doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but you believe every moment he’s on screen.

Nevertheless, another rock biography fails because of the filmmakers’ inability to create a fresh, coherent narrative out of the milestones of their subject’s life. (The film even distorts many of them, like the timing and length of John’s first marriage, to Renate Blauel.) We never get the essence of the man. Despite all the firepower, Rocketman doesn’t take you on much of a trip.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

No comments:

Post a Comment