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CINEMA: The Bitch Is Back

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ROCKET MAN (Directed by Dexter Fletcher, 121 minutes, USA, 2019)

meAVATAR2BY JONATHAN VALANIA Captain Fantastic — aka Sir Elton Hercules John, aka Reginald “Reggie” Kenneth Dwight, aka the co-architect of so many of the golden age of FM megahits that scored the bleary, barbituated Satyricon of the early-mid ‘70s (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Your Song,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Bennie And The Jets,” “Last Night Somebody Saved My Life” and the titular “Rocket Man” to name but a few) was not always so fantastic. Born bespectacled, effete and fragile, with a thick thatch of hair stamped with a 20-year expiration date, not to mention a titanic boatload of innate musical talent, to shit parents (war-damaged, hopelessly mismatched, and utterly incapable of giving or receiving love), Sir Elton came of age as a gay man at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offense in England, so it is no wonder he had so much to unpack in rehab once the drugs stopped working.

All of which is both the madness and the method of Rocket Man, the just-out Elton John biopic directed by Dexter Fletcher, who was called in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired for being difficult and creepy, or vice versa. Both films follow the same narrative arc — meteoric rise, drug-fueled race to the bottom and triumphant-but-slight return to glory — with the primary difference being that all the same-sex, drug-taking and debauchery that was scrubbed from Freddie Mercury’s biopic is unflinchingly displayed in Elton John’s. Rocket Man is told in impressionistic recall by fortysomething Elton during group therapy, where he arrives at the film’s onset in a halo of blinding white light dressed as the devil himself, having finally hit bottom and gone AWOL from a sold out show at Madison Square Gardens.

Sir Elton is played by Taron Egerton, a British actor with near-zero stateside name recognition, but given how thoroughly he crushes it that will soon change. Although he looks like what would come out of the the other side if George Costanza and Chris Pratt jumped into a teleporter together, and doesn’t really sound like Elton John even when he’s singing the shit out of his song book, Egerton channels the man in all his glittery tragicomic flamboyance and gets to a higher truth about Captain Fantastic that transcends the overrated virtues of twin-like resemblance and note-perfect mimicry. It’s a stellar performance every bit as Oscar-worthy as Rami Malek’s Freddie. Still, the great love story at the center of the film is the chaste but no less procreative lifelong songwriting partnership of Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, who looks like Big Star-era Alex Chilton for much of the film). Bernie wrote the poetry and Elton set it into motion on a gorgeous bed of heartbreaking piano chords and bittersweet voicings.

In his recollections of the early days, we see tender-aged, pre-name change Reggie (played ably by Matthew Illesley as boy Reggie and later by Kit Connor as teen Reggie) sight-reading Mozart by flashlight under the covers after lights out and conducting an imaginary orchestra from his bed, winning a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Music on the strength of his preternatural piano chops, hammering out pompadour’d ‘50s rock in smoky pubs and backing up visiting American soul stirrers. Bluffing his way through an audition with Liberty Records, he lands a record deal that by random luck pairs him with the equally unknown and untested Taupin. But soon enough the hits start coming as Reggie changes his name to Elton John, finds his footing as a performer and comes to grips, privately at least, with his sexuality.

Once he becomes famous — and the film switches to a montage of massive arena concerts overlaid with swirling newspaper headlines that inform us, among other things, that at the height of his fame 4% of all the albums sold worldwide are Elton John albums —  Elton proceeds to drink, smoke, snort and fuck anything and everything that moves. Famous on the outside but crying on the inside, the Elton train eventually jumps the tracks after a long, slow druggy decline, bringing the film full circle as the resulting human wreckage rolls to a stop on the doorstep of an undisclosed rehab literally wearing devil horns. In short order, Elton gets sober, reclaims his career and lives more or less happily ever after.

Screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse) assembles Elton’s life not as a straight line but a zig-zagging mosaic of thrilling vignettes, ripe for all those big surrealistic choreographed production numbers where characters suddenly break into song and somehow, against all odds, it works. Big time. In fact, Rocket Man is at its best when it goes big — and it always goes big. More rock opera than PBS Frontline, the movie plays fast and loose with history’s timestamp in the pursuit of more satisfying storytelling, which is the beauty of the much-maligned biopic genre given that absolutely everyone’s life is a sad, slow walk from greatness to enfeeblement. Boring! The power and the glory of Rocket Man — which is to say the fun of it all — stems from the fact that it isn’t Ken Burns or Errol Morris telling you Sir Elton’s life, it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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