Biopics about subjects who are still very much alive are always a tricky proposition. The creatives involved want to tell a story that’s as true as possible, but at the same time don’t wish to risk offending the subject. We saw this in action with 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, an entertaining film that nonetheless heavily sanitised the historical details of the surviving members of N.W.A. Then again, even when the subject is deceased, as in the case of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, the tendency to omit the more complicated details persists; in the case of that film Freddie Mercury’s drug use and prolific sexual adventures. All of that brings us to Rocketman, a bright and intense biopic about Elton John and a film that seeks to straddle the line between warts and all truth and misty-eyed hagiography.
Rocketman opens with Elton John (Taron Egerton) dressed in a stunning devil costume, crashing an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and spilling his life’s story. This is used as a framing device, giving writer Lee Hall license to skip back and forth through time, to better understand how a chubby little boy named Reginald Kenneth Dwight became the incandescent superstar we all know him as today. The action plays out as a sort of musical fantasy rather than a straight drama, with various characters breaking into song or choreographed dance numbers to underline an emotional beat or emphasise a specific moment in time. It works, for the most part, with plenty of joyous singalong sequences including a stunning scene where Elton makes his American debut at the iconic Troubadour club in Los Angeles.
Performance wise, Edgerton nails not only Elton John’s physicality but even has a crack at singing a surprising number of the songs himself and doing so really rather well. His turn isn’t quite as groundbreaking as Rami Malek’s from Bohemian Rhapsody, but in a film that spends much of its runtime questioning who Elton really is, that seems oddly appropriate. Jamie Bell is also excellent as Elton’s creative partner Bernie Taupin, who often seems to be the rock idol’s only true friend. See, for all the glitz and glamour, Elton has had a frequently sad life. His parents Sheila and Stanley (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) were manipulative and unavailable respectively, his lover/manager John Reid (Richard Madden) was a dead-eyed sociopath and despite all the adoring fans screaming his name, the man was unable to love himself.
Director Dexter Fletcher, who himself was brought onto Bohemian Rhapsody after credited director Bryan Singer went walkabout about two thirds of the way into production, crafts an imaginative and engaging story here. Although much less grim in its delivery, it has shades of Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, and the puckish, playful moments set the biopic apart from its safer genre mates. Things do drift a little towards the mawkish and sentimental by the end of the film, but generally speaking it feels earned.
Ultimately, Rocketman is a colourful, exciting tribute to a colourful, exciting musician, brimming with solid performances, imaginative direction and great music. And while it certainly glosses over some aspects of the man’s life, it contains an emotional truth that will likely resonate with you for a long, long time.
The zombie comedy sub genre has become almost as stale and overused as the very zombie genre it seeks to parody/pay homage to. The high-watermark remains Edgar Wright’s wonderful Shaun of the Dead but other flicks like Zombieland and Dead Snow have their slight charms as well. The problem is it’s all been done before. Over and over and over again. To be a memorable zombie comedy in this most crowded of markets a film really needs to add something new. Anna and the Apocalypse from director John McPhail asks ‘what if it was a musical?’ to mixed, but mostly engaging results.
Anna (Ella Hunt) is a teenage student in her last year of high school. She wants to travel and see the world, much to the chagrin of her sensible dad, and has a close group of fellow misfit friends all obsessed with their own minor problems and triumphs. Everything goes tits up when a zombie apocalypse breaks out on Christmas and Anna and her mates must reach their nearest and dearest before it’s too late. And, of course, they’ll belt out a few songs along the way.
Anna and the Apocalypse is at its best when it plays to the angst and self involved myopia of being a teenager. One particularly striking number features Anna and her best friend (who would like to be more) John (Malcolm Cumming) singing about a brand new day, blithely oblivious to the fact that they’re prancing through a neighbourhood beset by zombies. A lot of the early moments ring true, authentically portraying the real concerns of adolescence without becoming cloying and twee. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t quite sustain this and in the second half becomes a much more familiar zombie romp, replete with gore gags and undead humour you’ve seen before, done better.
Still, charm goes a long way and Ella Hunt is an extremely watchable screen presence, managing to convey genuine pathos even while singing and dancing. The songs, overall, are a bit hit and miss – and there’s possibly one tune too many – but if you’re sitting within the venn diagram of “millenial”, “loves zombies comedies” and “lives for musicals” you’re likely to have a spectacularly good time with Anna and the Apocalypse. And the rest of us can, at the very least, admire a zom com that attempts to gnaw on something a little different.
In the words of Sam Elliott’s Bobby: “Music is essentially twelve notes. All any artist can offer to the world is how they see those twelve notes”. For a film that serves as the fourth remake of a story dating back to the golden years of 3-strip Technicolor, these are words that could have sabotaged this entire venture.
First directing gig for star Bradley Cooper, first acting gig for co-star Lady Gaga that doesn’t involve music videos, witches or Robert Rodriguez, and both put towards a story that has been uttered through the lips of the likes of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. If this film was simply adequate, that would already be a serious feat, but it seems that Cooper isn’t one to settle for just being “adequate”.
His ability with directing actors needs to be brought up, as he manages to wring out impressive work out of pretty much everyone in attendance. His own performance as the sloshed country rocker Jackson, whose skin, jacket and lungs are all tanned leather from the look and sound of it, is very strong; same with Gaga as Ally opposite him, but it’s with the supporting cast that the bigger surprises lay in store. Everyone fits perfectly in place, and in the case of Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother, he manages to bring out the best work of his entire career. Or, in the case of Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, and Dave Chappelle later on in the film, one of their rare cinematic gems. Add to this the dazzling lights captured by Matthew Libatique (Straight Outta Compton, Black Swan) and you have visual gold.
But for a movie musical, visuals are only half of the puzzle; the music needs to connect just as hard, if not harder. Well, this might be one of the single strongest musical efforts that have made it to cinemas in years, possibly decades. Aside from Cooper having an impressive set of pipes on him, giving the numerous live performances grizzled soul, and Lady Gaga finally nailing that country-western/pop fusion she attempted with her most recent solo album Joanne, the sound mixing is so clear that it feels like an actual live concert with all the ear-shredding distortion that comes with it. But one with all the heart-breaking and sobering behind-the-scenes drama kept in, giving the story a serious emotional push over the top.
A Star Is Born shows an incredibly strong first effort for actor and now director Bradley Cooper, leaving his own fingerprint on what has become a legacy remake in a way that does justice to the material, pays due tribute to the original, and shows why this story still resonates in a world populated by RuPaul’s Drag Race and Gaga’s brand of pop revivalism. It’s a timely feature that highlights the true timelessness of the original work; it’s the juggling act that all remakes strive for, but few manage to capture. Encore!
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