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Leftover Women

Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Taiwan has been in the headlines in recent weeks for becoming the first society in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. Mainland China is, meanwhile, going in the opposite direction: extolling traditional family values on state-sponsored primetime TV (seriously), organising government-sponsored matchmaking ceremonies, and exhorting (married) couples to give birth to rescue the country’s plummeting birth rate. The idea of ‘leftover women’ is not new – the term was coined in 2006 – but renewed government intervention to promote heterosexual marriage as a social norm gives it a special resonance in 2019.

Leftover Women is another entry in a growing class of ‘WTF China’ documentaries made by foreigners. Like 2017’s Dream Empire, which also screened at the Sydney Film Festival, it focuses on one quirky phenomenon of modern China – where unbending authoritarian orthodoxy and Wild West hyper-capitalism go hand-in-hand – and uncovers the human cost.

Co-directed by Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam (whose last project, a documentary on internet addiction, was also made in China), the film adopts a triptych structure following three women in the ‘leftover’ bracket, under constant pressure from their families and society to pair off as soon as possible.

It is deft at symbolism: opening in a marriage agency, a doll in a wedding dress dominates the front counter; a subject is framed against a wall of red weddings ads in the subway; and the filmmakers follow a character through the bustle of a Beijing ‘marriage market’, parents touting their children’s qualities like hawkers flogging wares. Arguably, the film could have buried deeper into this carnivalesque side of marriage in China, as an institution that commodifies human beings.

Where Leftover Women excels is on a character level. Its 100 minutes are divided evenly between each of its three women, capturing stunningly intimate moments.

At times, the participants are so unguarded, the emotions so real, that the barrier between them and the viewer seems to fall away: these passages are absolutely in the best tradition of China documentaries, along the lines of Last Train Home and the work of Zhao Liang.

The problem is that Huamei’s story is so emotionally compelling and achingly evocative of the plight of China’s ‘leftover women’ that she makes the other two narrative threads seem unbalanced by comparison. There is a level of access to her – her personality, hopes and desires, and family in rural China – that is not present for the other two, interesting as both of them are. Hers is also the story that is most fully, and movingly, resolved. The film knows this, which is why it opens and closes with her. Huamei should really have been the sole focus, but Leftover Women is worth seeing for her alone.

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My Big Gay Italian Wedding

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A feelgood slapstick comedy exploring differing attitudes to love and sexuality, this entertaining movie is based on a long-running off-Broadway play. Fun, fast and frenetic, the pace never lets up and the frivolous nature of the piece keeps things firmly on the lighter side.

Paolo (Salvatore Esposito) and Antonio (Christiano Caccamo) are living a comfortable life together in the metropolitan city of Berlin. Paolo proposes and the two, along with their oddly matched flatmates, a wealthy actress and a depressed cross dressing bus driver, head across to Antonio’s family village in central Italy.

As well as introducing his parents to his partner, his flatmates and the fact that he’s gay, Antonio has to convince them that the wedding will take place in the village. His stern father (Diego Abatantuono) happens to be the village mayor, and despite showing a progressive position towards immigration and the refugee crisis, is not so forthcoming when it comes to gay marriage.

Antonio’s mum is more reasonable, and sets about making it her mission to bring about a successful, and fantastically extravagant wedding. She even hires a wedding planner from a popular TV reality show to help with the finer points. She does, however, insist that Paolo’s own mother attends the wedding ceremony.

Paolo has much difficulty with this, as he has been to all intents and purposes disowned. He enlists the help of his fiancee and their friends to convince his mum of the importance of her being there.

In the midst of all this, their depressed flatmate is questioning life itself and everything around him. This strikes the wrong chord most of the time, and is a bit of a dud in the laughter stakes. Laughing at a depressed transvestite experiencing a mid-life crisis is at odds with the spirit of the rest of the film. His communications with the other overdramatic flatmate are also oddly constructed and seem tagged on in a half-baked way.

These shortcomings are made up for by the sheer beauty of the setting. The first glimpse of the village is simply stunning. It’s made as the group of the two lovers with their two friends make the walk to the fantastically picturesque elevated hillside village of Civita di Bagnoregio. It’s a dramatic scene and strikes as an image more soundly than much of the scripted action.

Above all else though, it’s a fun light-hearted movie with its heart in the right place, even when the details don’t make a whole lot of sense.

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Team Sonic Racing

Game, Gaming, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Dear reader, there was a time in our video game history, in that halcyon decade known as the ‘90s, when nary a console gaming system was connected to the internet. Mainly because the internet, at least how we understand it today, didn’t exist. Therefore, if you wanted to enjoy a multiplayer experience in your own loungeroom you’d have to physically bring people into your home and play the damn thing in person, with split screen. Twas a simpler time. The undisputed king of the loungeroom was Mario Kart 64, a game where you could play as various Nintendo characters and hoon around bright, cartoony tracks and hit each other with shells. Over the years that followed, kart games have come and gone, and video game experiences have skewed ever more online, but even without the warm haze of nostalgia, it has to be said that the loungeroom kart experience has been missed.

Enter Team Sonic Racing, the newest kart kid on the block, who would really prefer you ignore the various iterations of Mario’s vroom vroom fun times and focus on the bright blue fella. Team Sonic Racing, as the name suggests, takes characters from the Sonic the Hedgehog IP and throws you and your mates into an array of colourful tracks where you kart about, picking up power ups and questing to best your opponents, human and AI alike. In terms of new gameplay mechanics, it offers some intriguing team-based additions, like faster speeds when you follow your teammates closely and supers that are more powerful if you launch them simultaneously. These are actually smart additions, making the gameplay less mindless than your usual kart gear, and it’s an undisputedly fun time.

On the negative side, and this is a little subjective, but Sonic and friends have always been a bit… dull as characters. Honestly, the most impact that Sonic has ever made was with his nightmarish (and soon to be amended) movie trailer appearance. With the dead eyes and the teeth… those weird, human-like teeth. Point is, without much in the way of personality, it’s hard for the Sonic agnostic among us to get particularly worked up over the hero character’s antics.

Ultimately, however, the entire reason for Team Sonic Racing’s existence can be boiled down to a single question: do you want a kart game you can play with your mates? Because Team Sonic Racing is available on PS4, XBOX, Nintendo Switch and PC, unlike the (admittedly superior) Mario Kart 8 which is Switch only. So, if you have a group of likeminded chums who seek to return to those barely remembered days on the couch – or if you’re so young you’d like to have that experience for the first time – Team Sonic Racing offers an engaging, if unspectacular, reason for a group hoon with some sparkly animal friends. Freaky teeth not included.

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Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion

family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Author Rene Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo’s Asterix comic books are iconic not only in their native France and Belgium, but have literally travelled the world, with plenty of adults in Australia growing up reading the English translations.

A series of live action films, with Christian Clavier as the title character and Gerard Depardieu as his bulky buddy Obelix, were box office hits in French speaking territories but hardly travelled, whilst an animated franchise was launched with 2014’s Asterix and Obelix: Mansion of the Gods, and was a massive hit, especially in France. The same filmmakers return with a follow up, an original story this time (as opposed to a comic book adaptation) with The Secret of the Magic Potion.

In the tradition of the comic books, the adaptation into English is seamless, with puntastic character names – Getafix, Demonix, Vitalstastix, Tofungus and our fave, Cakemix – offering passing laughs as the full tilt action takes hold.

The story devised for the film takes many of the series’ favourite motifs (magic potion for one) and channels them into a narrative that sees the holder of the magic potion recipe, the ageing Getafix, fall from a tree and decide that he needs to find a gifted young Druid to pass on the recipe to. Escorted by Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix, and not-so-secretly followed by the entire village who need the potion to ward off those dastardly Romans, the group soon encounter the evil Demonix, a Druid who has turned to the dark side, and who alerts Julius Caesar and the Roman army about the mission and the possibility of discovering the secret of the magic potion.

The 3D animation is never less than impressive in adapting the original characters into moveable form. There are reverential references to the original 2D comic, and some lovely touches such as the use of a map to illustrate the countryside, something that was always a feature of the comics. Like the comic, the main source of the comedy is the slapstick derived from the use of the magic potion and the buffoonery of the Romans, the villagers and particularly, Obelix.

It’s all in good fun and moves along at a brisk pace; almost too brisk as there are aspects you will struggle to grasp before it moves on to the next scene. A particular subplot involving wild pigs, in particular, may make sense upon repeat viewing. Which is a kind way of saying that the main pleasure derived from this entry may be in nostalgia. Parents will be able to take their little ones to enjoy a bit of silly buggers for 100 minutes, whilst you recall why these characters struck a chord with you in the first place. This time around, unfortunately, it will not have the same impact.


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Godzilla II: King of the Monsters

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Godzilla has always been bit of a tough sell for western audiences, at least compared to the near unanimous adulation he receives in Japan. It doesn’t help that attempts to make him western-friendly have included the disastrous 1998 version by director Roland Emmerich. But hell, even the 2014 Gareth Edwards version seemed almost embarrassed to show the big scaly bloke for more than a few seconds at a time, leaving the heavy lifting to a largely tedious human cast and a bewilderingly under-utilised Bryan Cranston. Still, the 2014 version made bank and allowed the creation of an extended “MonsterVerse” that continued with 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and now manifests its most spectacular entry, Godzilla II: King of the Monsters.

King of the Monsters really has two stories happening throughout. There’s the monster story and the human story and you can probably guess which one’s the best. The monster story features stunning action sequences with the likes of Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah (and numerous lesser entities) fighting amongst themselves or destroying whole chunks of this pretty blue planet we call home.

Director Michael Dougherty (Krampus) has an absolute ball setting up blistering beastie beat downs in all sorts of environments, and they never fail to impress. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the human story – despite featuring quality actors like Vera Farmiga, Charles Dance, Ken Watanabe and Kyle Chandler – is adequate at best, bewilderingly silly at worst. The plot, revolving around crypto-zoological agency Monarch and an eco-terrorist conspiracy, works on paper but in execution falls flat. It’s strange because monster movies don’t need to be this flavourless, Kong: Skull Island proved that, so quite why KotM chooses to be so is a little baffling.

However, this is Godzilla II: King of the Monsters, not Humans: A Coherent Story and taken as a loving homage to the Godzilla flicks of yesteryear and a balls-to-the-wall creature feature in its own right, KotM succeeds; and in terms of sheer unbridled spectacle, it is the best of the MonsterVerse so far. One does rather hope, however, that when Godzilla vs. Kong drops next year, they’ve actually included some human stories that are either good enough to enjoy or silly enough to appreciate ironically.

Still, if you’re in the mood to see skyscraper-sized monsters smacking the everloving shit out of one another, you’re absolutely going to have a good time with Godzilla II: King of the Monsters.

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Dark Money

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Due to a certain reality TV star and property owner becoming the leader of the free world, American politics has come under a fair amount of scrutiny recently with the rest of the world sitting back and watching what appears to be the Government eat itself. The gap between the common man and political leader has never appeared so defined. And yet, Trump getting into office seems like a forgone conclusion when you consider the topic of Kimberly Reed’s documentary, Dark Money.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could not ban corporate spending in candidate elections, which came as a shock to many. No more so than the state of Montana who, since 1912, had declared that corporations could not make financial contributions of any kinds in a state election. With the state’s hands effectively tied behind its back, Dark Money explores the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision using local government as a stand in for the country as a whole.

Reed (Prodigal Sons) paints a portrait of patriotic monikered advocacy groups funneling money to fund partisan advertising and, let’s be honest, influence political decisions. It’s a cut-throat business exemplified by a group wishing to dismantle Obamacare and inviting a politician to defend the health care system. Despite flyers promoting the town hall public debate, the politician in question is never actually invited to attend and when it becomes clear they’ve been hoodwinked, the public meeting is told by a coldly smiling PR agent that they’ve just misunderstood the purpose of the meeting. Gaslighting 101.

On top of this are slanderous flyers going out to potential voters that make wild claims about ‘unpatriotic’ candidates. In one, a candidate is painted as being someone who would let serial killer John Wayne Gacy off the hook. It’s jaw-droppingly insane how far these funded groups will go on behalf of their ‘clients’.

And at the heart of all this is that in the attempt to purge Montana of its moderate politicians, real issues are being woefully ignored. Issues such as an abandoned copper mine which could potentially be the next ecological disaster. Spoiler alert: it is.

Reed also follows John Adams, an investigative journalist who loses his job over the course of the film before rallying the troops and starting his own independent news group. It’s never explicitly said that Adams lost his job because of the things he uncovered, but it doesn’t say that he didn’t either.

Reed’s film will boil the blood of many. She is a passionate filmmaker who has a lot to say. Equally though, it is a film that has too much to say in 90 minutes and a lot of Dark Money appears to be spilling over the edges. It’s not helped by the fact that Reed is trying to squeeze a narrative spread over several years into such a short runtime. As such, the film is dense and, despite a nice turn with a whiteboard, hasn’t got time to breathe and spell things out for its audience.

You don’t need to have an in-depth knowledge of American politics, but at times, it feels like it would help. After all, there’s no doubt that this is an important subject to address, so it’s a shame to see it get drowned out by its own noise.

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Camino Skies

Documentary, Review, Theatrical, This Week 3 Comments

Offering an inspirational look at the process of coping with emotional and physical trauma, Camino Skies is a powerful feature documentary looking at the lengths people will go through to experience recovery.

Tracing the path of a group of Antipodean walkers as they traverse the 900km route from the French Basque town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the film naturally provides space for each individual story to shine through.

The major motivating force at work in all of their recent histories is a desire to push themselves and to confront and hopefully come to terms with recent or ongoing pain. Each of the walkers have experienced grief of some kind, and the filmmakers sensitively display all of the accounts with integrity and purpose.

Displayed against the stunning scenery of the mountainous route, a pathway considered to be the Mecca of pilgrimages for religious and non-religious alike, the questions each walker asks themselves take on profound implications. At points, the film delivers a powerful level of emotional impact.

The filmmakers never overdo this however, and each response, be it laughter or tears, always comes across as a human reaction to where they are and what they happen to be talking about. The various personalities in the film are also linked by their sheer passion for wanting to complete the arduous walk.

Aged from 40 – 70, the walkers deal with all weather and terrain along the way, bravely coping with the blisters and bruises that come with the territory. Away from their homes for a whole month, the walkers learn to help each other; the comradeship and shared desire to experience a greater achievement is portrayed evocatively.

Key to this accomplishment of showing the stories of recovery up against the big picture of nature, is Noel Smyth’s cinematography. Demonstrating the majestic grandeur of the Pyrenees and the intense elements that preside around them, the camera work is at once transporting and beautiful.

It’s also a well-paced film, benefiting from editing that pushes the film along elegantly. Like the walk itself, it’s a steady and gradual journey that does not have need of overly dramatic disclosures or jump cuts.

A meditative film that invites reflection and wonder, Camino Skies delivers on its brief. We discover why people choose to put their bodies and minds through the pilgrimage, and just what can be learned. In effect, it’s a moving account of moving on.

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Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Wheelchair-bound, alcoholic Felix Crabtree (Michael Lake) and his flighty, religiously-fixated sister, Betty (Rhys Davis, credited as Melissa Davis) find their quiet, rather mournful lives disrupted when a stranger (Norman Boyd, credited as The Norm) appears at their rundown farmhouse on the edge of a blistering yellow desert. Calling himself “Smith”, the black-clad interloper keeps his origins to himself. Betty thinks he might be a demon. Smith jokes – or does he? – about being able to fly – quite a coincidence, as Felix is obsessed with building a glider to clear the mountains to the north and fly off to a new life. For Betty, change is evil. Is Smith?

For years now, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds has been all but a lost film. The first feature by Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City), it was filmed on 16mm around Broken Hill in the same period Proyas was shooting the music video for INXS’ “Kiss the Dirt”, and used mostly the same crew, to boot. After an extremely truncated limited theatrical run and a stint on the festival circuit, it shuffled onto VHS rental and quickly dipped below the radar of all but the most dedicated followers of Australian genre fare, enjoying a brief resurgence of notoriety after The Crow brought Proyas to prominence, sending film students and goth kids alike off to scour the Cult section of their local video library in hopes of tracking it down.

Even in the digital age, Spirits has remained a rare beast, with extremely dodgy VHS rips on the usual streaming sites being the only spoor. That’s all changed now, though, with the nigh-legendary film recently getting a painstaking 2K restoration and screening at MIFF before getting a home release through Umbrella’s Beyond Genres specialty label.

It’s a fascinating viewing experience. A low budget post-apocalyptic fable, Spirits of the Air owes more to Alejandro Jodorowsky than it does to George Miller. Proyas’s After the End scenario is sketched in strikingly off-kilter visuals and drenched in dense, often impenetrable symbolism (the crucifixes that festoon the Crabtree house are easy enough to parse; the line of ’50s-era convertibles half buried nose-down in the sand, less so). The narrative is elliptical, the performances opaque. The film is largely a three-hander, and Proyas draws heightened, theatrical turns from his actors, building on-screen characters that are more like archetypes from an unfamiliar pantheon rather than psychologically real people. That might test some viewers – it’s hard to find a point of identification when one character’s mad, another’s an enigma, and the third either manic or drunk.

However, counterpoint: it is so goddamn beautiful, it doesn’t really matter. It’s pretty pat these days to note that Proyas is one of Australian cinema’s most gifted visual stylists, but if nothing else it’s certainly handy to have a decent copy of Spirits of the Air on hand to point at and note that, having honed his craft in music videos, Proyas’ prodigious chops were clearly evident right out of the gate. Working with cinematographer David Knaus and production designer Sean Callinan, Proyas gives us a wondrous and wonderfully dreamlike apocalyptic landscape – a deliberately weird interstitial space, on the edge of the desert, on the dividing line between land and sky, and perhaps life and death (there’s a lot of a death imagery here – you can’t throw a rock without hitting some symbol of the infinite void in Spirits of the Air). That it was pulled together on the cheap with nothing but love, guts, and skill is evident even in the squared-off 16mm frame, but only makes it all the more arresting; the film feels like a handcrafted afterlife, with not a prop, a rock, or a swatch of costuming out of place or not deliberately chosen.

The visuals are perfectly complimented by Peter Miller’s gorgeous score, which combines Morricone-esque flourishes with haunting vocals and minimalist electronica to create a suitably haunting soundscape to underpin Proyas’ parable.

The film’s principal flaw is that it is so dramatically inert; the audience is directed to look at objects rather than experience action, and this rather stately, occasionally lethargic pacing can be trying at times, even when the milieu is so jaw-droppingly stunning. It’s possible that, because of that, for modern audiences, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds will remain a curio, formally interesting but unengaging. However, if your interests lie in the history of Australian film, the cinema of the fantastic, the career or Alex Proyas, or all three, this is an indispensable work, and one we’ve been awaiting for far too long.

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Happy As Lazzaro

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A fantastical magical-realist fable, Alice Rohrwacher’s beautifully crafted film is a time-spanning allegorical study of class and social-structures. Awarded the Best Screenplay award at Cannes last year, the film fixes a studied gaze at the workings of exploitation, immigration and work.

Drawing on a wide template of influences, with echoes of Pasolini and Fellini sounding out amidst the exquisitely designed imagery, the film impacts upon the consciousness like a haunting dream. It’s a picture that wraps its mysterious arms around an audience, revealing long-held secrets and memories.

In the bright Italian summer at remote rural estate Inviolata, honest and hard working Lazzaro (a mesmerising debut from Adriano Tardiolo) is both taken advantage of and relied upon. Ordered this way and that, and living in a tightly controlled world ruled over by the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi), he never once complains, displaying a beatific, saint-like disposition to whatever is demanded of him.

Lazzaro has a sweet, guileless innocence about him, and has the tenancy to drift off at times, making it seem as though he is not wholly present. Early in the film, one of the townsfolk remarks on this and observes that he has been ‘staring into the void again.’

Given what happens later, with the stepping over into the future or possibly a different timeline, this sense of being caught between two worlds (and under la luna, the moon) makes Lazzaro more of a mystic or a seer.

Into this innocent world of hard work and the cycles of life steps Tancredi (Luca Chikovi), the marchesa’s rebellious and arrogant son. He sets about using Lazzaro as a way to make extra money, by invoking another well known story, the boy who cried wolf.

The interplay between these two forms another layer to the film, with the boisterous Tancredi offering Lazzaro a different view of the world, and ultimately bringing him into a completely different environment. Propelled by Tancredi’s ruinous, greedy plans, the boy suffers an accidental fall from a cliff-edge and, after being looked after by a far more dependable companion lone wolf, wakes up in a different world.

He then makes the long march from countryside to city, dramatically constructed to resemble a pilgrimage or a monastic walk of penitence for imaginary sins. For Lazzaro’s essential goodness is never in doubt, even in a turbulent world where people and things take on different appearances and roles.

All of this plays into Rohrwacher’s captivating artistry that draws out the ethereal and timeless imaginings of communities across the world, with a specific Italian sense of family and generational concerns. An exceptional film that constantly surprises, Happy as Lazzaro melds reality and myth, sound and vision, to create a wonderful feast for the senses.

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Musical, Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

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.