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losing it at the movies: something wild (jonathan demme, 1986)

rocketman (dexter fletcher, 2019)

In many ways, Rocketman is a typical biopic. It's constructed as a flashback, with Elton John putting himself into rehab and telling everyone his story from childhood to stardom. Of course, everything goes to shit ... there's the booze, and the drugs, and the moneyed excesses. It's nothing you haven't seen before, with the obvious difference that this time it's Elton John rather than Billie Holiday or that guy in A Star Is Born. You get a shitload of Elton John songs, which is why you came. Taron Egerton does well enough singing those songs ... he's not the problem. It's the arrangements of many of the songs that brings Rocketman down, with "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" being the best/worst example. Here is how it sounds in the movie:

It starts out OK, if a little tame for what is arguably the hardest-rocking song Elton ever recorded. But just past the one-minute mark, the guitar disappears, replaced by a big band sound with some psychedelia tossed in. The real thing, though, was recorded with the guitar up front, leading the charge. You might want to remember the name Davey Johnstone ... he's nowhere in the movie, and even a simulacrum of his sound disappears into the movie version of this song, but he is crucial to how the original sounded.

The movie version sounds more like a Broadway musical than it sounds like rock and roll.

There's also a standard trope of bios about musicians that goes seriously astray here. Most of the songs are presented as context for something that's happening in Elton's life. It's the curse of the singer/songwriter genre. But at least James Taylor was singing about himself in "Fire and Rain". Elton John songs are written by Bernie Taupin. Taupin isn't exactly an autobiographical writer in the first place, but it's a serious misstep to take words Taupin has written and have them come out of Elton's mouth as if they reflected Elton's situation. The whole idea of making songs explain situations (his heart was broken so he wrote this song) is trite misguided, but even if you do buy into that, it makes no sense that Bernie writes lyrics, completely separate from Elton, yet the movie acts as if those lyrics speak to Elton's innermost being. (As if to prove my point, the one time the songs make sense is when Bernie sings "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" ... at least the right character is doing the singing.)

And it's not just the original music that Rocketman is up against. It even goes where no other movie needs to any longer, for Almost Famous has already given us the "Tiny Dancer" segment for the ages. Here is Rocketman ... excuse the quality, the movie is too new for good clips, this looks like it was recorded with a phone off a movie screen, but you get the idea:

And here, the iconic scene from Almost Famous:

Rocketman's version is about Elton's sadness (voiced, again, using someone else's words). Almost Famous shows how music brings people together into a community. In one, the only thing we learn from the song is about Elton John's emotions ... in the other, we learn how people use music in their daily lives.

You will like Rocketman, if you just want the nostalgia of being reminded of songs from your past, if you want to see a reasonably good impression of Elton John, if you aren't bothered by the stock biopic tropes, if you don't mind that the score is better suited for a stage play than for a rock and roll show. I suspect that includes a lot of people. Not me.

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