When Rock Was Young: ‘Rocketman’ & ‘Climax’

rocketman-bitch-is-back-taron-egerton-elton-johnLet’s address the elephant in the room right away.

Rocketman is way better than Bohemian Rhapsody.

Rocketman will probably benefit from the massively successful Bohemian Rhapsody‘s populist afterglow. A year ago, biopics of gay musicians were not exactly in high demand. Now, they can make close to a billion dollars at the box office and clean up during awards season. (Even if they aren’t very good!)

Bohemian Rhapsody had plenty of trouble behind the scenes. Perhaps it’s a miracle that editor John Ottman was able to salvage something watchable from it. But the real problem with the film was its approach to Freddie Mercury as both an artist and a human being. It paid lip service to Mercury’s demons, but didn’t have the courage of its conviction to follow him there, to the point that Bohemian Rhapsody ended up feeling like a jukebox musical biopic about someone else entirely. Its popularity rests largely on an admittedly showstopping finale in that Live Aid performance, ending on a high note the rest of the film doesn’t deserve. It works best as a concert film, with Rami Malek’s charismatic performance captivating us whenever Queen gets on stage.

Unfortunately, there is also talking, at which point Malek’s prosthetic teeth are more captivating than anything that’s being said.

But enough about that.ROCKETMANI don’t hold Dexter Fletcher responsible for Bohemian Rhapsody‘s shortcomings, but I was leery entering another biopic of an ostentatious gay musician, especially one touched by some of the same unsullied hands that crafted something so sloppy. Rocketman shares some DNA with Bohemian Rhapsody — the usual rise-fall-comeback structure of virtually any biopic, a boldly flamboyant lead performance that occasionally goes too big, and a script that seldom errs on the side of subtlety. But where Bohemian Rhapsody floundered, Rocketman soars.

The most critical difference is that Rocketman is a no-holds-barred musical, inviting us into a song and dance fantasy world right from the start. John’s songs are sung not only by Taran Egerton, but by the entire cast. There are dialogue-driven scenes we’re meant to take at face value, but knowing characters will pop in and out of song mitigates any sense that this is a truly true story. Rocketman was made with Elton John’s blessing and guidance, just like Bohemian Rhapsody was shepherded by the surviving members of Queen, but Elton John isn’t as intent on flattering himself. His character is flawed in all the right ways to make for a compelling cinematic journey.

Most story beats are familiar enough — disapproving parents, fights with collaborators, verbal tussles with short-sighted record execs, betrayal by a greedy manager, and a drug overdose — but broad strokes work well in Broadway musicals, and that’s what this is. Rocketman could be adapted for the stage with barely any adaptation at all. And yet, Fletcher takes full advantage of the cinematic toolkit, too, giving the film a lot more panache than most musicals that did start on stage.jamie-bell-taran-egerton-rocketman.jpgMajor movie musicals like Into The Woods and Les Miserables and Dreamgirls rarely feel like they really want to be on the big screen, but there’s no question that Rocketman is a film. Every musical sequence is imaginative and enthralling from start to end. It is not the sort of musical where the story stops so someone can sing; the storytelling is told through the musical numbers, not just through lyrics but rich visuals that convey what the characters are feeling, too. When Elton John first performs at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the audience takes flight in appreciation of this new rock god. At one of his lowest points, John sings while drowning in his own pool, accompanied by his childhood self. As stylized as they are, these are powerful emotional moments, landing in a way more conventional biopic moments never could.

One even more essential departure from Bohemian Rhapsody is that Rocketman isn’t afraid of Elton John’s sexuality. Bohemian Rhapsody traded in stereotypes and adopted gay affectations for laughs, but didn’t dig any deeper than that. It used what was convenient for its predictable narrative, and sidelined the rest — to the detriment of any emotional or historical accuracy. It was was a celebration of a gay artist that seemed ashamed that he was gay — which ended up being as much an insult to Mercury’s legacy as it was an ovation.

Rocketman has no such problem. (I doubt Elton John would have stood for a film that did.) It takes John’s queerness seriously and makes it an integral part of his character arc. His sexuality informs the loneliness he feels throughout much of the story, which in turn escalates the substance abuse that threatens to destroy his success. Few drug-addled biopics offer much psychological insight into their subjects’ self-destruction, but here, it actually makes sense. In one strong scene, Elton’s father (Stephen Mackintosh) callously dismisses his rock star son in front of the boys he adores from his second marriage. We also see the pain in Elton’s friendship with his lifelong collaborator Bernie Taupin (played very well by Jamie Bell). Bernie has the luxury of fitting in; Elton feels he has no choice but to stand out. Egerton wears recreations of many of John’s most famous costumes, sometimes inhabiting them like the iconic showman he is, and other times as a desperate clown. The gaudier his dress, the further from any real authenticity Elton John is, building a sense of tragedy into these otherwise upbeat performances.taran-egerton-rocketman-elton-john.jpegElton’s relationship with dapper manager John Reid (Richard Madden) also gets plenty of screen time, souring with John’s success. Early scenes of their courtship are swoony and exciting. In a way, nearly all movie musicals are gay, but this might be the first studio musical that is so literally gay, allowing gay characters to sing and dance about being in love the way heterosexuals have done for decades. (Does Chris Columbus’ Rent count? Let’s not count it.) In this way, Rocketman is a milestone for gay men in mainstream movies, much in the way Love, Simon was last year. And if that were all Rocketman had to offer, it might be enough, but Rocketman transcends expectations at just about every turn. Miraculously, it also gets the creative process right, showing the time and effort Bernie and Elton put into writing their music. (As much as can be done in a movie like this, anyway.) Other musician biopics tend to make it seem like every hit song springs from the lips of a musical genius fully formed, but this feels a true collaboration.

I went into Rocketman only passingly familiar with Elton John’s music. I could hum along with “Crocodile Rock” or “Bennie and the Jets,” but most of my familiarity was from other movies — “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous, “Your Song” in Moulin Rouge, and of course, I know every word of the Lion King soundtrack. As for his personal life, I knew he was a “Sir” and threw a killer Oscar party and palled around with Elizabeth Taylor — to me, Elton John was a fun gay uncle type. I wasn’t exactly shocked to learn that a musician who rose to fame in the 70s had major substance abuse problems, but I didn’t know that going in. I brought very little baggage into the theater with me, and came out with a newfound appreciation for Elton John and his music — which should be a primary function of any film like this. Fletcher’s film takes a few missteps here and there — some dialogue feels uttered from the actors’ notes on what the character is feeling than the screenplay itself — but Rocketman never stops moving long enough that it’s a problem. This summer’s slate is awfully dreary for fans of original, unpredictable stories — remakes and sequels are pretty much all we got. That makes a gem like Rocketman all the more refreshing. It may end up being the most purely enjoyable escapist entertainment of the year.

climax-danceI can’t say the same for Climax, because “enjoyable” is not what it’s going for. Climax is directed by Gaspar Noé, who makes a point of punishing his audience in films like Irreversible and Enter The Void. His films are artful and compelling but could easily give you a seizure — which is also a good time at the movies, for a certain audience. I’m an admirer of all Noé’s films, but Climax may be the first one I can truthfully  say I liked watching. The film is trippy and extreme, but less trippy and extreme than most of his other work. And this one’s a musical! (Sort of.)

Climax‘s characters don’t burst into song, but they do dance — a lot. And that dancing is incredible. After an introduction to the characters via some VHS tape confessionals, Climax opens with one hell of a dance sequence, so good I would have happily watched that go on for a full two hours. But there is a plot — someone has spiked the dance troupe’s sangria with LSD, which means all these extroverts are about to go even extra. Sex, paranoia, and aggression erupt, but the dancing never stops.

Sofia Boutella leads the cast, the only actor likely to be familiar to American audiences. For those unfamiliar with Noé’s work, Climax provides a fantastic jumping off point — and a gauge of your threshold for his more-is-more sensibilities. (If you think Climax is “too much,” skip his other films.) Moreso even than last year’s Suspiria remake, Climax brings us true dance-horror, a genre I never knew I wanted until it was here.

Both Rocketman and Climax invoke cinema’s fascination with drug use to rather different effect. Elton John’s musical fantasies get darker and trippier the more fucked up he is; Climax is fucked up from the start, and proceeds to get even moreso. Both take full advantage of sound and image, providing two splashy, lavish alternatives to the kind of movie we’re usually told is “meant for the big screen.” And, at this midpoint, they just so happen to be my two favorite films of the year.




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