Friday, June 14, 2019

His Song, His Story

When I was a kid, the rumor burning up school was that Elton John earned a nickel every second. He was at the height of his fame then, and the idea that simply by existing—fabulously—Elton earned millions a week was of a piece with the mythic, larger-than-life figure he cut. I can't decide if Rocketman is ridiculous or nearly perfect, and I think that's the point. Much has been made of director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall playing wildly with chronology in this life story: Elton wows a pub crowd when he's just a lad and still Reggie Dwight singing "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" which was written years later; he sings "Crocodile Rock" at his legendary Troubadour gig in 1970, though the song wouldn't be out for two more years; his hit "I'm Still Standing," cut in 1983 when Elton was seven years away from sobriety, is used in the film as his final-act Redemption Theme of recovery; etc.. But this is what I like about the movie, which is less a biopic than a grandiose song that a peak-era Elton and Bernie Taupin might've written about his life, packed with hooks, camp, sentiment, sentimentality, nuggets of wisdom, and spectacle. Granted, Elton may very well have bodysurfed atop a writhing orgy at one point, or several points, in his life, and I'd love to think that he literally strode into rehab in full-costume. The movie poster winks that the film's "based on a true fantasy," and in this way Rocketman's very much a true story—Elton played himself onstage, and often in private, as a diva beyond all normal range, and as much of his life post-1975 charted graphic rises and plunges via abuse of drink, drugs, and sex, so does the movie trade on exaggerated sensations and highs, normal chronology a thing for mortals.

But the problem with using camp and melodrama to tell a story is that eventually you may have to move beyond camp into ordinary, real drama: the interwoven scenes of Elton's 1990 stay in rehab try to ground the film in gritty reality, but end up bumping up against the film's fantasies, leading to an unfortunately cringe-worthy scene of release and recovery. Hall and Fletcher give Elton one or two moments when he glimpses his true self behind the facade, but they're really just pauses between (the great) songs. If you go in to Rocketman expecting the kind of based-on-real-events life story that Elton would screen in his imagination, up awake at 4 a.m. thinking up new, theatrical arrangements of his most well-known songs, then you'll have fun with it. In public, Elton John was in many ways a caricature of himself, and Rocketman interprets his songbook as joyously, if as flatly, as a cartoon.

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