Tripping the Bitch Fantastic!
It’s that floating thing. At the Troubadour. That’s what sells ROCKETMAN, a “musical fantasy” of Elton John’s rise to stardom. That metaphorical moment when time stops, and artist and crowd levitate in slow motion simpatico. It’s happened to me. And if you are a performer, it’s happened to you, once, twice, maybe three times in your life. Not literally. But if I have to explain it, you’ve never felt it.
Frank Zappa said, “Writing about music is like tap-dancing about architecture.” You can’t describe one type of art by using another art to describe it. But every movie about a musician or painter or writer is trying to do just that – conveying original art through the prism of another art. Usually, the original art is subsumed by the ineffable translation process, and ends up just another tap-dance about architecture. But writer Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher have captured Elton John’s and Bernie Taupin’s euphoric musical art in a lightning strike of filmic transcendence. It’s that floating thing.
To be clear: Elton metaphorically floating is actually homage to his literal flips at the piano keyboard, captured most infamously by Barrie Wentzell. The filmmakers took this physical stunt that defined Elton as a performer, and made it metaphysical – a thing that defines all performers. And they plant their thematic flag with that dramatic dreamstate scene.
Last time Elton John worked with Taron Egerton he was playing a fantabulous fruity version of himself in KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (2017), meaning he was playing himself. Now, in ROCKETMAN, Elton is executive producer while Egerton plays Elton, the Artist as a Young Man, a raunchy, ambitious punk with a prodigy’s ear for piano, and a thirst for success that would take him to the top and see him hit rock bottom.
Bryce Dallas Howard is frumpy mother to Reggie Dwight (Elton’s birth name) and Steven Mackintosh (the willowy pot dealer from LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS – the Dexter Fletcher connection) is his toxic father, who never has a kind word for Reggie and never attends one gig. Stephen Graham (SNATCH) is a slimy record exec. Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor play Young Reggie, whose dreams of fantasy and escape from mundanity will one day be fulfilled like Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.
Jamie Bell is long-haired, bell-bottomed Bernie Taupin, who would become Elton’s lyrics brain for most of his life. Their first meeting is perfectly captured – again, not because of exactly what they said to each other, or where they met, or how wide their bell-bottoms, but in how the filmmakers convey that magnetic connection between two young, like-minded musicians. I remember those heady days meeting total strangers around my age that had the same musical tastes and abilities – it was heartening to know you were not the only Madman Across The Water! You don’t want to disengage with them; you spend time just yakking interminably, having drinks, listening to records, chasing chicks, cursing record execs… but nothing compares to the insatiable climax of—no, not sex—PLAYING TOGETHER! I’ve always said that when two musicians who dig each other play together, it’s our version of sex. The number of players with whom I’ve shared bromosexual connections on stage, tripping the light fantastic… I’m such a slut. Anything to get to that floating thing.
ROCKETMAN is framed around a group therapy session that Elton bursts into in full costume, after he deserts the stage at Madison Square Garden. (This never happened. Can you imagine the litigation nightmare if an artist of sound mind and body – at the height of his fame, as Elton was – simply went AWOL at the Garden?) He reels off a litany to the other addicts: “I’m an alcoholic. And a cocaine addict. And a sex addict. And a bulimic. Also a shopaholic, and has problems with weed, prescription drugs and anger management.” He relates his life – flashbacks that highlight formative moments: his piano-playing youth, meeting Bernie, choosing his name, touring America, sexing his manager (Richard Madden), his failed hetero marriage, his failed suicide attempt, and the spiritual deterioration that led him here.
When Elton cinematically bursts into the meeting, he is in full garish costume (the persona “Elton John”) but as his tales become more personal, more painful, more honest, each flash-forward to this meeting shows him divested of a little more costume, until he is only bathrobe (having bared his soul).
The other structural element is the song Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, from the 1973 multi-platinum double-album of the same name. Lending itself to epic orchestral flourishes, we hear an ethereal rendition of the song to open the movie, and it haunts us at various stages in Elton’s life, prompting him to introspection; Bernie also sings a snatch of chorus when he is at a crossroads, considering giving up the falsities of fame and “going back to my plough…” I don’t begrudge the filmmakers using this song as spiritual signpost, but in reality, Bernie and Elton penned Yellow Brick Road way back near the beginning of Elton’s catapult to superstardom (the third number one album in a row, of 7 consecutive number ones), when they were touring like maniacs, doing heaps of drugs and were the furthest from introspection two lovely lads looking for pussy and man-pussy could ever be.
There is another scene which speaks to me as a musician: it’s a breakneck montage, so non-musicians may miss its significance. It’s when Elton’s entourage drags him back from the dead, seconds before stage time. Before the curtain opens, a crew of minders descends on a bedraggled Elton, slamming on his costume, fussing over minutiae, injecting him (with steroids, for throat swelling), placing a baseball bat in his hand, and suddenly – the curtain opens and Elton is “on” – his body straightens, his smile appears like a supernova, and he strides out deliberately without any vestige of the previous saving-grace moments. Again, the film captures this pre-stage “emotion” 100%. (This sequence is homage to Elton’s Madison Square Garden show, where he had his stomach pumped for drugs two days before, and went on to perform an iconic set.)
I can attest through personal experience that that scene is not just tap dancing about architecture. It hits so close to the bone, I need a splint. That “onstage persona” is a REAL physical and mental hormonal shift. For me, the epiphany that that condition was real came at a big gig in Sydney, standing behind a giant curtain, dressed in stupid stage clothes, wondering if I could pull this off, and I could hear my band onstage airscream into the opening chords, and the second I pushed through that curtain – I changed. It was a flick of a switch. In a blink of an eye. At age 23, it was the first time I consciously realized, “Hmm, this fire-breathing, take-no-prisoners juggernaut is my onstage persona!” There was a cosmic jolt that took me from civilian to performer. No more was I the dweeb with car problems and rent due and aching feet. If perception is everything, then for those magic moments onstage I AM another person. Every performer has this switch. Elton himself has said that he can’t believe how resilient performers are – and it’s that switch that can take you from your lowest ebb to wherever you need to be. The day you don’t experience that jolt is the day the floating stops.
Admittedly, ROCKETMAN, for all its dazzling muscle, is shot through with wrong time periods, upon wrong costumes, upon wrong people, upon wrong songs, upon wrong contexts (Elton sings Rocket Man to signify his nadir: “I miss the Earth so much, I miss my life”— Wait, the words are, “I miss my WIFE”… sheesh!), but the movie waylays our critiques by touting itself as “musical fantasy” (which just means it’s a “Musical” – I mean, every Musical is a “fantasy” right? In what “reality” does Judas sing his doubts to Jesus? In what “reality” do Upper West Side street gangs sing and dance at each other?). ROCKETMAN thumbs its nose at details and laughs in the face of facts; it is Elton John’s barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world – and we get it: all these things happened, but not in this way and not in this order – putting it miles above the recent Queen biopic BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, which took itself as seriously as AIDS.
On a side note, Dexter Fletcher was a producer on BOHEMIAN, director here, proving his directorial worth far outweighs his producer contributions.
Sing Elton – Meet Elton – Become Elton
— YouTube Comment
Taron Egerton sings. That’s his crystal tenor over re-recorded versions of Elton’s catalogue. Unimpeachable vocals (though his falsetto isn’t as “biting” as Elton’s), lending a verve to the musical numbers that miming to the originals could never achieve. Egerton has gone his whole life peripherally nudging Elton: he sang Your Song at an audition, he sang I’m Still Standing as a cartoon ape in SING, he co-starred with Elton in GOLDEN CIRCLE, and now he IS Elton John (including performing a reworked video for I’m Still Standing for the film’s optimistic outro).
Giles Martin (son of George) produces the music, doing for Elton songs what ACROSS THE UNIVERSE did for Beatles songs – breaks them down into their component parts, so we can witness their beauty as musical compositions, not just the fan fodder they would become.
And the big dance numbers are craftily blocked, with the camera constantly creatively moving amongst the dancers. The Bitch Is Back features every dancer in washed-out tones while Elton is in blazing color.
And it’s heartwarming that Bernie Taupin is portrayed as such a key player in Elton’s destiny; Elton himself, in film and real life, never lets us forget Bernie’s integral contribution to his yawp. Elton may never have ended up a nobody, but he would have been a very different somebody were it not for Taupin’s bold lyrical journeys. Still, if the filmmakers truly wanted to step into bold, it would have been titled ROCKET MEN…
An ongoing annoyance is how movies portray musicians “composing”. When they sit down to work out a new song, it comes out fully formed, as they go from one chord to the next and sing the final melody – oh, but “slowly” so as to make it seem like they’re “figuring it out.” ROCKETMAN is no different, as Elton picks out the melody and chords to Your Song moments after Bernie gives him the lyrics sheet. No experimentation. No meandering into alternate chord progressions. Set in stone. From start to finish. And I wanna SCREAM AND BREAK THINGS OVER THE MOVIEMAKERS’ HEADS!—
Because that is exactly NOT how songs are composed.
But I understand the legalities behind this brazen lie in music films. The filmmakers must never ever stray from the copyrighted melody or chord progression, because they’ve purchased the rights to that song, and if they stray from its recorded structure, the filmmakers/composers/legal department will have to register and copyright a whole new song. Then there are the legal battles over that new song sounding too much like an existing song (of course it does – it IS that existing song in nascent versions). Red tape versus release date. Figure it out.
And then there’s that gay thing, which is – surprisingly, in 2019 – still giving some people aneurysms. The male-on-male interaction was apparently too hot for Russia, which edited out all references to homosexuality in their release of the film.
Otherwise, ROCKETMAN is unapologetically gay-attuned. They show Elton as a top in his raunchy sortie on his manager… hmm, I wonder… and it’s refreshing that his gay exploits are not depicted as deviancy or his downfall. Matter of fact, it’s kind of amazing how the movie makes it legit to be gay IN THE PAST because it is legit to be gay IN THE PRESENT. It must be grating to the actual people who lived their lives closeted back then, to see such roaring pseudo-acceptance now. Elton was so internally conflicted and tortured he married a woman (Renate Blauel in 1984) to throw people off the scent. It only made it more obvious. His marriage becomes a few minutes of comedic screentime – but how many horrid memories must it dredge up for so many others for whom it was a scathing reality?
ROCKETMAN really only covers Elton’s early life and career, trying to tease out – as biopics do – those forces that shaped the young Honky Cat into the Rocket Man he would become. Outro title cards highlight Elton’s success with his charities, love life and career. It’s moving. It’s inspiring. It’s floating.
Me? I’m partial to Billy Joel myself…