Tuesday 4 June 2019

Made in England: "Rocketman"

If I've got the chronology right, Dexter Fletcher had already begun work on his Elton John tribute Rocketman when he was called up to fill in for the suddenly shifty Bryan Singer on the set of last year's Bohemian Rhapsody. There was no real glory in the assignment: the grim business of Hollywood contract law meant Singer retained the director credit on a film that closed in on a billion dollars at the global box office before picking up multiple awards-season nominations, and gongs besides. What Fletcher may have taken away from the experience was a heightened sense of rhythm: what could be salvaged from the understandably distracted Singer's staccato set-ups, and what needed binning or reshooting in order for the finished feature to serve its purpose as a moneyspinning crowdpleaser. In Rocketman, you're never more than five minutes from the next tune you'll recall from golden-oldies radio, and maybe revere; as a delivery system for the Elton back catalogue, designed in part to send consumers scrabbling for the appropriate Spotify stream, it cannot be faulted. This isn't Fletcher's first jukebox musical, of course: he'd previously signed off on 2013's Sunshine on Leith, which constructed some kind of narrative from old Proclaimers songs, and benefitted from lower stakes. Rocketman demonstrates a greater flair than that (not unenjoyable) oddity, and greater competency than the irredeemable Mamma Mia!, the lowest of pop-cultural baselines. At no point, however, does it match the artistry and flamboyance of its subject, and there are places where it inadvertently resembles a director's cut of last Christmas's Elton-centric John Lewis advert.

Fletcher is hampered several times over: by a modest Britfilm budget, by the attendant desire not to alienate middlebrow sensibilities, and above all else by Lee Hall's script, which approaches the songs as pieces of a puzzle that require snapping into place to make a picture that will solve the mystery of all things John. The approach conflates the recording session with the therapy session; the film opens with the striking image of Elton (Taron Egerton), clad in a horned devil costume, striding offstage and into a group rehab meeting, whereupon we get the story of how he got here and what his issue is. (No-one else in the group will get a look in; it's very much His Song.) The music, then, serves as exposition and explanation rather than liberated creative expression; for a film called Rocketman, about a figure who in real life once seemed to have been beamed in from some outer galaxy, everything's oddly grounded. The soaring numbers have been rerecorded by Egerton at a notably lower (let's say John Lewis-y) tempo, with the edges taken off the higher notes and any period dirt removed by 21st century production methods. There is something of TV's Glee in the mix, in other words, opening up a bountiful back catalogue to teenagers who've been suckled on pop in its most overproduced state. While I'm reluctant to walk back my stated affection for that wayward but heartfelt entertainment, Rocketman again made me think about the manner in which our jukebox musicals are stocked deep with arrangements that aren't a patch on the idiosyncratic originals; their success says a lot to me about our willingness to accept the world in a somewhat reduced state. We used to demand and get art from our musicals; now we applaud the having a go.

Fletcher sometimes elevates the tunes via thoughtful staging. One early highlight comes with the repositioning of Late Elton's "I Want Love" as a Magnolia-style roundelay carrying us from person to person in the young Elton's unhappy household, and the film achieves something lovely with the generally lovely "Tiny Dancer" in having it emerge from a lovelorn Seventies Elton amid a Hollywood Hills party where everybody else is pairing off. (It's a reminder that most great pop songs, and many great artworks, were composed by outsiders looking on from the fringes, noticing what their more impulsive contemporaries couldn't, and expressing these observations with a certainty that would almost certainly be beyond them in the moment.) It's at least a little banal, though, that even these songs should merely serve as markers in an itinerary of the protagonist's quest for someone to stick around in his life a little longer than Kiki Dee did. To its credit, Rocketman doesn't gloss over Elton's sexuality. Hall's most interesting writing is tied up with ideas of (self-)control, picking over just how willing the singer was to deny himself that for which he apparently yearned. When the star's manager/lover John Reid (Richard Madden) floats the idea Elton should take a wife to disguise his true feelings, it's presented as a very weird request for anyone to acquiesce to. (Fletcher drops in some counterpoint via a fleeting glimpse of Liberace on the telly, going through his own form of piano-stool masochism.) Yet generally, the movie prefers motion to depth or emotion. The film's Renate (Celinde Schoenmaker) is ushered on for two scenes before she's sent packing without much of a conversation; the title number shuttles us from a suicide bid to a triumphant concert performance with nary a trace of emotional labour. Rocketman is interested in the star's suffering, but in the most superficial sense; it's honest, but only up to a point.

All these limitations stem from the attempt to fashion a coherent character arc out of decades of turbulent behaviour and wild mood swings. Turning Elton into a coke-snorting monster ahead of his final-act redemption (cued by a howl-for-help "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road") is laughably simplistic; and though "I'm Still Standing" provides an obvious note to finish on, one look at Elton's chart positions from the late 1980s and early 1990s (basically, between "Nikita" and "Candle in the Wind 1997") suggests a good deal more work stood between him and national treasure status. And so the film hops from bit to bit, track to track, supporting character to supporting character, forever staying just lively enough to get away with it. Stephen Graham consolidates his position as the new Bob Hoskins as Elton's first manager Dick James; Jamie Bell turns Bernie Taupin into the Sancho Panza to Elton's Quixote, and gives the film its one authentically touching non-sung moment; the perennially misused Bryce Dallas Howard resembles one of the housewives in Queen's "I Want to Break Free" video as Elton's disapproving ma - a role carrying a faint whiff of gay misogyny - and winds up stuck under old-age latex for her troubles. Egerton, game and committed, singlehandedly drags the film over the finish line: he nails Elton's stroppiness - the stamp of the platform boot on the floor of the well-stocked dressing room - and wears the costumes well, though it's hard to shake the sensation that Movie Elton actually makes most sense as a rapid series of costume changes. Never dull - which would have been a criminal offence - the movie confirms Fletcher as a very safe pair of hands, capable of getting a glittery ragbag like this to do a job on a Friday or Saturday night in much the same way he got Bohemian Rhapsody as close as anybody could to working. One final reservation: his directorial debut Wild Bill promised so much more.

Rocketman is now playing in cinemas nationwide.  

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