Rocketman ★★½

CANNES REVIEW #5

2019 Ranked
Cannes Watches Ranked

When Bohemian Rhapsody hit the world last year the responses were divided at best. Many people fell in love with Malek’s electrifying performance and, of course, loved seeing some of their childhood hits come alive again on the big screen, but what was often forgotten was just how basic and by the numbers the film was. For a person as unique and idiosyncratic as Freddie Mercury, his long-awaited biopic was abhorrently bland and, on top of that, glossed over his sexuality, easily one of the most discussed aspects of his life, and rearranged the facts of life to make a jumbled mess of a film. A lot went on behind the scenes and is probably a miracle that the film even came to be as it is. Much of that miracle is (probably) thanks to Dexter Fletcher who, after the continuous fuck-uppery of notoriously disgusting Bryan Singer, took over the directing job of the film. What exactly he did for the film can be anybody’s guess but with the arrival of Rocketman, it has become a little easier to recognize Fletcher’s directorial efforts.

An effort, yes, because as much as Rocketman is a sigh of relief after many half-assed attempts at creating biopics on musicians (not only Bohemian Rhapsody but also Netflix’s The Dirt fall into this maleficent category), it isn’t the film that’s going to save the genre. At best, it is a welcome change of pace.

To start out with the worst, Fletcher’s film basically suffers from the same cliches that most of these biopics suffer from. For one, it is made abundantly clear that the film, no matter some of its more artistic merits, is still very much a product. It’s made to capitalize on Elton John’s legacy and thrives on the plain fact that many of its viewers love to sit in the cinema and hear their favorite songs with a fitting visual accompaniment. On top of its sellout concept, it also has the same beats one would expect from the film about a famous artist and his struggles. It’s your expected rise and fall story and, of course, one can’t blame the subject himself for leading his life. Shit happens, we all know that. So if one knows the pitfalls of the story they want to tell, what can they do to avoid the cliches? In the case of Rocketman Fletcher tries to find a solution in the film’s format.

The film starts out with Elton John (Aron Egerton aiming for maximum awards consideration) entering a rehab center. He’s still dressed in one of his usual wild costumes and enters with the kind of cocky behavior we might expect from a superstar like him. But he soon cools down and starts to open up about his life and how it led him to his many different addictions. While the flashback format itself feels like a rather easy approach the way in which Fletcher handles it, is not. Instead of making a chronological breakdown of Elton John’s life, Fletcher uses the man’s reminiscing and the fluent nature of memories to his personal benefit. Instead of seeing him discover his songs the way the world did, he uses the deeper meaning behind them to stage often wonderfully elaborate and visually endearing musical sequences.

It may seem like a simple trick to elevate more down to earth performances of his songs to an overall more entertaining level but the musical format seems in every way like a perfect fit for Elton John’s life and character. Elton John is at least as extravagant as Freddie Mercury was and in this fantasized, fictionalized portrayal of his life the oddities of his existence are brought to glorious new heights. The performance of “Your Song” becomes a beautifully tender moment where Elton John contemplates his love life and a hit like “I’m Still Standing” becomes a true anthem of his survival and recovery. “Rocketman”, of course, is played at the height of his fame and with that the height of his problems but in such simple connections to his songs lies the eventual power of the entire movie. It is, after all, a piece of entertainment, something in which people can find an accessible and inspirational story.

It has to be said that Egerton plays Elton John very well. Aside from sometimes resorting to a caricature of the pop star, he brings a wholly natural flavor to the more emotional moments of the film. His dedication to the role even went so far that he sang everything himself and didn’t rely on lipsyncing, which is always an admirable feat with music-related projects. Alas, the form and the performance aren’t everything; the film still leaves a lot to beg for and isn’t in any way perfect. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be. It does right by Elton John’s life and presents him in a truthful manner despite enveloping it within a more magical form. Its outer appearance is definitely able to go high as a kite but what’s on the inside might have been developed a little more. All in all, there’s a clear sense of progress here.

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