ROCK­ET­MAN DOESN’T SUGARCOAT EL­TON JOHN

The Prince George Citizen - - 9716 -

Paramount Pictures photo by David Ap­pleby/ via AP Taron Eger­ton stars as El­ton John in a scene from Rock­et­man. TRAVIS M. ANDREWS

Much ado has been made about El­ton John’s in­sis­tence that the film­mak­ers be­hind his biopic Rock­et­man not sand the edges of his some­times tu­mul­tuous life.

A piece that John wrote in the Guardian about the film, which opened Fri­day, has made the in­ter­net rounds a few times lately: “Some studios wanted to tone down the sex and drugs so the film would get a PG-13 rat­ing. But I just haven’t led a PG-13 rated life. I didn’t want a film packed with drugs and sex, but equally, everyone knows I had quite a lot of both dur­ing the 70s and 80s, so there didn’t seem to be much point in mak­ing a movie that im­plied that af­ter ev­ery gig, I’d qui­etly gone back to my ho­tel room with only a glass of warm milk and the Gideon’s Bible for com­pany.”

That might sound like it’s just a tit­il­lat­ing ploy to sell tick­ets, but it points to­ward what makes Rock­et­man work, par­tic­u­larly in an age of tepid biopics like the much-awarded movie about Fred­die Mer­cury and Queen, Bo­hemian Rhap­sody. Though Rock­et­man was di­rected by Dex­ter Fletcher, who ac­tu­ally fin­ished the Queen biopic af­ter the de­par­ture of Bryan Singer, the two films couldn’t be fur­ther apart.

One of the ma­jor flaws of Bo­hemian Rhap­sody and other films of its ilk, such as Walk the Line about Johnny Cash and Ray about Ray Charles, is the way they tone down the less sa­vory as­pects of the artist’s life. Part of the rea­son seems to be that these movies are meant to cre­ate a warm glow in the au­di­ence – the same glow cre­ated by the songs that made these peo­ple pop­u­lar in the first place. View­ers have to grap­ple with their darker sides, but only for a mo­ment.

Much like The Who’s drum­mer Keith Moon did with an in­fa­mous tele­vi­sion set, Rock­et­man throws that for­mula out the ho­tel win­dow. In­stead of gloss­ing over the rough bits – namely, John’s anger is­sues and ad­dic­tion to al­co­hol, co­caine and sex – it fo­cuses on them. For much of the movie, John isn’t a very lik­able char­ac­ter. He’s cruel, nar­cis­sis­tic, high, drunk and ter­ri­fied. He doesn’t push everyone who loves him away so much as bull­dozes over them.

And the cam­era doesn’t look away. We watch John snort moun­tains of co­caine, only to have them re­turn as blood drip­ping from his nose. Pas­sion­less sex and mis­er­able orgy-ad­ja­cent ac­tiv­ity fills the screen. Stomachs are pumped in full de­tail.

Set­ting it fur­ther apart from other movies of its kind, John’s songs – many of which might sound poppy and pleas­ant but are ac­tu­ally about sor­row and soli­tude – are em­ployed dur­ing these dark mo­ments. Rocket Man, the song that lent its name to the film, be­gins when John at­tempts a (very) pub­lic sui­cide. The movie re­mem­bers that our fa­vorite songs of­ten come from painful places, and it makes sure we re­mem­ber it as well.

Most biopics about mu­si­cians tend to mess with both truth and time­lines, but of­ten film­mak­ers at­tempt to stay true to the gen­eral or­der in which songs were re­leased.

Rock­et­man cares only glanc­ingly about ei­ther, as it makes clear with its open­ing se­quence, which finds John in a bright orange, se­quined, devil out­fit walk­ing in slow mo­tion to­ward what we as­sume is a stage. That is, un­til he kicks the door open and is in a 12-step meet­ing.

The movie is filled with sur­real fan­tasy se­quences that el­e­vate the mood in any par­tic­u­lar mo­ment. Dur­ing John’s de­but at the Troubadour in Los An­ge­les, he and the au­di­ence lit­er­ally are lifted off their feet and be­gin float­ing above the floor for a while. Add on the fact that much of the movie is a juke­box mu­si­cal, and it’s not sur­pris­ing that one of the first scenes finds John as a child, his par­ents and his grand­mother all singing parts of I Want Love, which he and Bernie Taupin didn’t write un­til 2001.

The ul­ti­mate re­sult is the movie feels like John’s life, which is more ef­fec­tive than see­ing a decades-long ca­reer com­pressed into two hours. As John him­self wrote, the point was to “make some­thing that was like my life: chaotic, funny, mad, hor­ri­ble, bril­liant and dark. It’s ob­vi­ously not all true, but it’s the truth.”

When Rami Malek won the Os­car for his por­trayal of Mer­cury, a com­mon crit­i­cism was that all the ac­tor did was wear fake teeth and lip sync. This isn’t fully true, of course, and Malek is a lauded ac­tor. But there is some­thing lack­ing when an ac­tor mimes singing, rather than ac­tu­ally do­ing it.

Eger­ton, the Kings­man ac­tor who shines in the role of John, sings ev­ery song here. The im­por­tance of this de­ci­sion, which John in­sisted upon, adds an im­me­di­acy and emo­tional dy­namic to these songs, even if they are cov­ers. El­ton John’s ca­reer ex­ists in the space where fan­tasy meets fact, ridicu­lous­ness meets re­al­ity and camp meets cer­tainty. Rock­et­man showed ex­actly that. The Washin­gion Post

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