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Sunday, September 1, 2019

Rocketman deserves an extra half-star

(Warning: this is a review of the movie Rocketman and it contains spoilers)

Christy Lemire gives the movie Rocketman,the biopic of Elton John, two and a half (out of four) stars. I believe it deserves at least three stars, maybe more.

Lemire sees this film as a "formulaic, paint-by-numbers biopic" that rehashes the tropes we see in most biopics of celebrity entertainers. The entertainer is shown as an extremely talented person at a very young age. They attain early success. They dabble in and are almost destroyed by some combination of sex, drugs, and overspending. They finally find salvation and stability. (Or....the greedy and corrupt entertainment industry and the consumers of that industry's products tragically destroy the entertainer.) In the meantime, especially if the entertainer is a singer, the film goers are treated to performances of their favorite songs by an actor "who does it so well but also adds their own spin on the performer's oeuvre." (Not an actual quote.) See also: The Onion's "rise-fall-redemption arc." (That's an actual quote.)

Lemire is right. The film has all those elements. But the film subtly plays with them and undermines the cliched narrative. It does so in two ways, one minor and one major.

The minor way is that we're (mostly) spared a recap of how the Elton John came up with his songs. We don't see a recreation of the scene from "Walk the Line" about Johnny Cash, where Cash's girlfriend/wife tells him he "can't walk the line" and then Cash writes a song called "I Walk the Line."

In part, that's because Bernie Taupin wrote a good number (most? almost all?....the film isn't very clear about that and I don't know) of John's songs, while John provided the music, melody, and performance. But more important, it's also because the film isn't about the songs' creation. It's using the artwork that John (and Taupin) created to meditate further on John's life. The "Bitch is back" may or may not be about his childhood relationship with his mother, as the second scene of the film implies. But it's purpose in the movie is to introduce John's childhood. Most of the song presentations in the film are like that.

The songs may or may not have been inspired by the scenes in which they're presented. But the songs' actually inspiration is never (as far as I can tell) the main point. The idea is to use John's artwork to think about John's life. We see that most prominently when John starts to descend rapidly downhill. In that scene, he's doing his cover of The Who's Pinball Wizard, a song not written by Taupin (whom the film portrays as a true and caring friend), but by another group. It's something not original to the Taupin-John team, and it signals a sad decline.

The major way is more important and, well, major--yet subtle. We see it when John goes into rehab for his drug addiction. (I'm referring here to the second time we see him enter rehab. The first is at the beginning of the film.) The scene is triumphant. We see him shedding some of his outrageous costume--a costume that, we're given to understand, acts as something like a prison--while he's making his way to the rehab center. By the time he actually enters the rehab center, I was actually rooting for him. I was glad he was there. Maybe I even teared up a little.

Contrast that with other works' treatment of The Onion's "rise-fall-redemption" arc. (By "works" I'm including cinematic biopics as well as things like VH1 "behind the music"documentaries.) In those works, rehab is presented as the low point in the celebrity's life. Something he or she is reduced to. Rehab augurs well for their future, but their actual future begins later, when they reconcile with their partner and go back to entertaining without the drugs and alcohol. In Rocketman, the triumph is the decision to go to recovery. It's something to celebrate. It's the true climax of the film.

Now, I say Lemire should have given Rocketman an extra half-star, maybe more. I still wouldn't give the movie a full four stars. There's still enough of the caricatures and cliches from the usual biopics that probably detracts from the fourth full star. John's mother and father are probably too static. And the film assigns only one interpretation to the mother's statement that John, being gay, will "never be loved properly." That interpretation (presented at the end of the movie when we're informed that John eventually did find someone to love him "properly") is one in which his mother refuses unflinchingly to accept John, when I think we can also interpret that scene as one of sadness and pity.

At any rate, I think Rocketman is a better movie than it seems at first glance. I recommend that you see it.

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