Thursday, May 30, 2019

'Rocketman': a blast of pop energy

Taron Egerton delivers a major performance in this Elton John biopic.

A simple description of Rocketman makes the movie sound like one more celebrity biopic. Here's how such a summation might go: A boy who feels unloved establishes himself in the world of music, attains international celebrity as a rock star, almost loses himself to sex and drugs, enters rehab in the nick of time and emerges whole.

All true, but of little help in understanding what director Dexter Fletcher achieves with Rocketman, a movie about Elton John, one of rock's most successful artists. Fletcher refreshes genre cliches with storytelling strategies that turn Rocketman into an infectiously energetic look at the life of a rock star.

To begin the story, John -- in a red costume with wings and devil's horns -- marches down a hallway. We suppose that this man in red plumage is about to burst onto a stage, which -- of course -- would be the cliched way to begin a rock 'n' roll biopic. The star emerges. The crowd goes wild. The music begins.

But when John pushes through a set of doors, he's not putting himself on display for adoring fans. He's entering a rehab therapy session where he confesses to a multitude of failings. Among them: alcohol, drug and sex addictions, anger-management problems and shopping issues.

Without wearing it out, Fletcher uses the therapy format to take us back to the childhood John spent in a London neighborhood of British council homes. His mom's mind seems to be elsewhere and his unloving martinet of a father shows no appreciation for the talent of a son who wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.

Fletcher turns this "flashback'' into a beautifully staged musical number, thus tipping his hand. He's not going to allow his filmmaking to be shackled by convention. The movie will stake its claim as a quasi-musical.

I won't say more about Rocketman’s stylistic flourishes. Fletcher includes enough of them to turn the movie into a heady tribute to the pop-cultural energy that's embodied in Taron Egerton's terrific performance as Elton John.

Of course, when a movie runs on so much high energy, it can't help but create a few spaces where the pace lags. Overall, though, Rocketman should appeal to those who enjoy cinema with a creative kick, as well as those who count themselves as Elton John fans.

Key songs are included. They're sung by Egerton who so thoroughly inhabits his character that his performance proves exhaustive and exhausting. I mean that in a good way. Egerton rides the wave of energy that elevates John’s stage presence even as it smashes his off-stage life into walls of pain. What Egerton does qualifies both as an amazing feat of talent and will.

Fletcher doesn't flinch from John's gayness. As his career begins to take hold, the singer falls for John Reid, a music manager (Richard Madden). A self-possessed operator, Reid eventually makes it clear that his approach to John has a cruel business edge. And Elton himself isn't always likable. He flies into rages or submerges himself in drug-induced stupors.

At one point, John tells his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) that musical ideas pop into his head so quickly he hardly can keep up with them. And that, I suppose, is the key to understanding John's pre-rehab years. He's surfing the waves of his talent, never entirely safe from the big breaker he won't be able to ride. The movie charts John's ascendance quickly, almost a biography in shorthand.

Amid all this, Fletcher tells the story of an unloved child who seems to be appreciated only by his grandmother (Gemma Jones). Matthew Illsley and Kit Connor play John as a boy and an adolescent. The name -- Elton John -- is an invention. The movie shows how the young man born Reginald Dwight -- hit on the name he'd make famous.

Essentially, Rocketman consists of three acts. The first covers John's childhood. The second deals with his meteoric rise to success. In the third, John feeds his ravenous audience -- touring, performing and indulging his addictions. A fourth act -- John's recovery, marriage, and journey into fatherhood -- appears only in information and photos that accompany the end credits.

The supporting performances are all good. Bell creates a loyal friend in Bernie Taupin, a lyricist who eventually must step outside the tornadic spiral of John's success. Handsome and self-assured, Madden’s Reid wins John's heart before the relationship with his client/lover turns sour.

As John's mother, Dallas Bryce Howard paints a telling portrait of a woman whose refusal to be corralled by a stifling marriage leads her down a path that’s not likely to win any mother-of-the-year awards.

Elton John, who's now 72, served as one of the movie's executive producers, so it's fair to wonder what has been elided or omitted entirely. Still, it would be unfair to think of Rocketman as an act of cinematic hagiography. The movie is in love with John's music, but how could a biopic about Elton John be otherwise?

Rocketman includes an attempted suicide and plenty of despair. That's why it feels strange to say that the movie generates a feel-good vibe that follows you out of the theater. Maybe that's because even in the turbulence of John's rollercoaster life, the joy of music and performance can't be denied.

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