ROCKETMAN (2019)

May 30, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s billed as a musical fantasy. If you are familiar with Elton John’s discography and history, you’ll want to keep that in mind as the film unfolds. The reward is a colorful spectacle worthy of one of pop music’s most successful songwriters and greatest showmen. Director Dexter Fletcher (EDDIE THE EAGLE, 2015) and writer Lee Hall (BILLY ELLIOT, 2000) make frequent use of Elton’s music within the fabric of the storytelling. It’s no traditional biopic, nor should it be, given the wild ride of the man whose story is being told.

Taron Egerton tears into playing Elton John like it’s the role of a lifetime. And he succeeds in a way that makes it seem that could be true. Most of us first recognized Taron’s talent as “Eggsy” in KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014), though I’m not sure we expected such a dynamic step up so soon. This is not some actor merely mimicking the movements of a celebrity. This is an actor taking possession of a role. Without the costumes, Taron doesn’t look much like Elton John. He certainly doesn’t sound like Elton John … though his voice does justice to the classic songs. Despite those things, he is captivating on screen, both in the dramatic moments and the musical mania.

Elton’s childhood and the strained relationship he had with his parents (played here by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Macintosh) are given much attention, as is the support and love of his grandmother (Gemma Jones). With two self-centered parents wishing he didn’t exist, the child piano prodigy might never have attended the Royal Academy of Music if not for grandmother Ivy. Of course, the professional relationship that meant the most to Elton’s career was his songwriting collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), and much of the film is devoted to this prolific partnership – in fact, one of the most spine-tingling moments occurs as Bernie hands Elton the words to “Your Song” and Elton proceeds to set it to music right in front of us and Bernie. Whether that’s historically accurate or not, it provides a thrilling moment on screen for the creative duo.

Elton John in rehab is used as a framing device for the film. This allows him to walk us through his life … after admitting to having issues with drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping and anger. In other words, one of the most successful musicians of all time was a mess. And we get to sit front row as he details his early sexual confusion, his desire to be loved, his early professional frustration, and finally a career that exploded – covering him with money, adoration, stress, and more frustration. We see the warts and all.

Supporting roles are filled by Richard Madden as John Reid, Elton’s lover and manager; Tate Donovan as Doug Weston, owner of Sunset Blvd’s Troubadour; Rachel Muldoon as Kiki Dee, Elton’s collaborator on  their big hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”; and Stephen Graham as Dick James, the famous music publisher who first signed Elton.

As someone whose favorite Elton albums are “Tumbleweed Connection”, “Madman Across the Water”, and “Honky Chateau”, it’s easy for me to appreciate the time period covered here (roughly 1970-1983), and also to recognize the ‘artistic license’ taken with the timelines and events. His 1970 gig at Troubadour features a rowdy version of “Crocodile Rock”, which wasn’t even written yet … although the scene makes for great cinema. Many of the songs that advance the story are used out of sequence, but it’s quite effective to see and hear them in context. His marriage to Renate Blauel and the rehab stint featured both occurred after 1983, which we can assume is the story’s stopping point given the use of the “I’m Still Standing” video as a finale. Even the use of John Lennon over Long John Baldry doesn’t really matter since this is all about the spectacle, and for spectacle, you’ve likely never seen costumes (including eyeglasses and headdresses) used to such startling effect … and so frequently. The baseball “uniform” Elton wore during his 1975 Dodger Stadium gig has always made me a bit uncomfortable, but it’s recreated beautifully for the film.

Given that comparisons to the recent BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY are inevitable, it should be noted that director Dexter Fletcher rescued the final production of that film before finishing this one. Freddie Mercury and Elton John are two of the most fascinating figures in music history, and while both films are enjoyable, it’s ROCKETMAN that is willing to take the riskier path by highlighting the flaws of a creative genius. So criticize if you must, but you’ll probably still be singing in your seat.

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VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017)

September 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Stephen Frears has enjoyed a long career by focusing on the interesting stories of people, rather than the salient specifics of history or politics. He received Oscar nominations for THE QUEEN and THE GRIFTERS, and helmed other crowd-pleasers such as MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS, PHILOMENA, HIGH FIDELITY, and FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. While purely entertaining movies are always welcome, it’s important to note the filmmaker’s approach when the story is entwined with historical importance.

Based on real events … mostly” is Mr. Frears’ cutesy way of kicking off the film and asking us to enjoy the unusual story of connection between a Queen and a servant, and cut him some slack on the historical depth. For most of us, the real enjoyment will be derived from watching yet another standout performance from Oscar winner (and 7 time nominee) Dame Judi Dench as the longest-reigning monarch, Queen Victoria in her elderly years. It’s a role she played twenty years ago in MRS. BROWN, and her relationship with John Brown (presented in that film) has some parallels to what we see here with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Dame Judi is the rare actress who can capture both the loneliness and tiresome burden of six decades of rule and the re-invigorated woman we see learning a new language and new religion. She plays weary and spunky with equal believability.

Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, and in 1861 her beloved husband Prince Albert died. This film picks up in 1887 with the pomp and circumstance of the Golden Jubilee – a celebration of her 50 years of rule. The early scenes tease us with obstructed views, and the comedic element becomes quite obvious as we see her so carelessly slurping her soup at the formal lunch. Part of the celebration includes the presentation of an honorary coin by two Indians peasants Abdul (Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), the first chosen because of his height, and the second as a last minute fill-in.

Lee Hall (Oscar nominated for BILLY ELLIOT) wrote the screenplay based on the book by Shrabani Basu. The journals of Abdul Karim were only discovered in 2010, a hundred years after his death. Some of the less favorable moments of this era are mentioned, but most of the Queen’s lack of knowledge or awareness is attributed to the “boring” reports from her advisers. This leads to some awkward moments later in the film regarding the Muslim mutiny and the subsequent Fatwa.

Rather than dwell on history, the film prefers to focus on the unconventional friendship and the re-awakening of the Queen. Abdul becomes her “Munshi” – a spiritual advisor and her teacher of Urda and the Koran. As you would expect, this is all quite scandalous and frustrating for those such as Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams), Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), and the royal staff: Sir Henry (the recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith), her physician Dr Reid (Paul Higgins), and her quivering maid Miss Phipps (Fenella Woolgar). There is even a comical sequence with the great singer Puccini (Simon Callow) as the Queen herself belts out the Gilbert and Sullivan song “I’m Called Little Buttercup”.

Balmoral, the Isle of Wight, and Windsor Castle are all part of the breath-taking scenery, while the absurdity of the royal status is viewed through the eyes of the Indian servants. Most of the focus is on Victoria’s transformation from joyless, isolated monarch to the anything-but-insane (an Oscar worthy scene) and eager to engage elderly woman (one who has an entire era named after her) falling back in love with life as she fights off “the banquet of eternity”. Come for the laughs and the performance of Dame Judi … just not for a history lesson.

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