Rocketman (2019) review

If the last ten years were the age of the superhero film, perhaps we’re moving into the era of the music biopic. Rocketman follows the tumultuous and often difficult life of Reginald Dwight, better known as the most famous British solo artist of all time, Sir Elton John. While liberties are undoubtedly taken with the truth for the sake of a compelling narrative structure, the heart is in the right place.  And boy does this film have heart to spare. This, combined with innovative camera work and a stunning soundtrack, make Rocketman something really special.

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Biopics can have a tendency to be a little formulaic, predictable. They flirt with both the drama and documentary genres, steering clear of anything creatively bold, filmmaking wise. In a refreshing twist, however, this film is as flamboyant and brave as the man himself. Combining the drama and musical genres is nothing short of genius and the bombastic broadway dance numbers that take a 180 turn into formalist filmmaking are as exciting as they are frequent. All of the cast are able to have a stab at re-vamped classics alongside the bafflingly excellent Taron Egerton, which keeps things varied. These formalist elements extend to bizarre trip sequences that manipulate time and space to evoke the feeling of a drug addled mind, while concurrently taking us on a masterful musical voyage.

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The cast is wonderful. Egerton leads the charge as a truly believable and unapologetically angry Elton, hitting every emotional beat with an electricity that strikes you through the screen. Richard Madden may as well be twirling his non existent moustache for how evil he plays manager John Reid, but his initial suave charm just about makes it work. Slightly more questionable is Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s mother, who not only doesn’t seem to age, but also acts a little too ditzy, so when the big emotional confrontation comes in the third act, it falls a tad flat.

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Overall though, Rocketman is phenomenal. The soundtrack provides beautiful re-orchestrations of so many hits, performed incredibly by the shockingly amazing at-singing Egerton. The writing is spot on, hitting the key beats of John’s life while not shying away from his demons. The dialogue is both witty and appropriately dramatic, yet it somehow feels organic and real. Finally, and most wonderfully, is the brilliant cinematography, editing and sound design. This is a technically fantastic film, bearing a strong resemblance to the innovative shots and transitions of La La Land, which is certainly no bad thing. Don’t let the sun go down on this incredible flick, and make sure you come back for several viewings.

★★★★

The Greatest Showman (2017) review

On paper, the life of circus producer P.T Barnum must have seemed to be perfect fodder for a biopic movie. The man epitomises the American dream of self success and is renown world wide for popularising the modern circus and turning it into a viable business venture. He is also well known, however, for sensationalising and exploiting his performers, exposing their deformities and quirks to the paying public, popularising the common ‘freak show’, popular during the 1800s. ‘The Greatest Showman’ pushes the term ‘loosely based on’ to its limit with a derivative plot so full of clichés that even a Disney adaption might blush at this adaption. This of course, is less of a problem for animated offerings such as ‘The Little Mermaid’ based on obscure literature, whereas this film tries to present a warped version of events of people who lived and breathed only a few hundred years ago. The irony of exploiting the story of a man who notoriously exploited others for profit, for profit is not wasted.

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Director Michael Gracey makes his debut and despite a very weak script, manages to make the film highly appealing to watch through a strong visual style, quick and integrated scene transitions and a glorious colour palette that evokes the feeling of a broadway musical. While the characters and story are all paper thin, the movie at least has a highly appealing tone and look to it; the choreography, costume design and sets are all fantastic and a feast for the eyes. What Gracey lacks in character development and narrative structure, he makes up for with gorgeous cinematography and a fast pace. The brevity of scenes acts as both a detriment and a benefit to the film: on the one hand, the characters are allowed no time to just breathe and develop thus feeling more like singing and dancing puppets as opposed to real people. However, the breakneck pace does mean that very few scenes are dull or uninteresting as the film is constantly throwing a new set, song or Hugh Jackman riding an elephant (?) at us.

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Though the cast have very little to work with the weak script, most deliver serviceable performances. Hugh Jackman is unsurprising though ultimately likeable as Barnum. Zac Efron and Zendaya also deliver fairly warm performances as the typical ‘star crossed lovers’ sub plot. The rest of the cast are all fine, but just fine. There are no terrible performances but nothing that will be remembered a few hours after watching. However, as performers of song and dance, they are faultless. The choreography and songs are loud and bombastic with high energy vocals and dance steps being spot on from the entire cast. Most Broadway musical loves will likely adore this movie, as the ‘showy’ aspects entirely hit the mark. However, if you’re a musical lover looking for something that has both fantastic songs and show-stopping numbers to compliment an engaging story, you might leave disappointed- ‘Les Miserables’ this is not.

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In this sense, I find myself quite conflicted about ‘The Greatest Showman.’ I listen to at least one song from the soundtrack every day and find the whole score incredibly appealing and exciting. The songs are expertly crafted with clever lyrics that tell a story through a song (which every musical song should do, but so many fail to) and crucially, they are all memorable and catchy. I find myself humming ‘The other side’ far more often than I should. So then why don’t I love this movie? Why wasn’t it one of my favourites from 2017? I think its because it feels transparent and shallow. The filmmakers are trying to create a big, bombastic musical and have chosen the flimsy narrative of Barnum purely due to the array of striking visuals and characters that the story can lend to a musical. I get it, but it means that the film ends up with very little heart as a result. Character motivations are blurry at best and despite shying away from Barnum’s more capitalist and obliquitous ways of exploiting people for money, when they actually do touch on his treatment of the performers, the movie has no idea what it wants us to think of Barnum. Its the classic end of second act slump where the lead is at his lowest, however its not because of his realisation of how he’s treated the performers, its because his wife has left him. The performers just forgive him and start singing the (admittedly exceptional) ‘From now on’ and all is very, very quickly forgiven for some reason.

So all in all, ‘The Greatest Showman’ has completely polarised me; I both love and dislike it. The songs are fantastic and are up there with some of the modern greats like ‘Book of Mormon’ or ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ But as a story, it is beyond weak and flimsy. Creating an uplifting story about the man who famously popularised freak shows and said ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’ is bold enough, but the creation of fake and supposedly important people in his life like Phillip Carlyle (Efron) is pretty shallow. Putting any historical inaccuracies aside, the film just doesn’t have very engaging characters. Jenny Tunt, Charity Barnum and even P.T himself are just not very well developed and are one note caricatures rather than feeling like real people like say, Jean Valjean does. However, its still worth seeing and is a spectacle in terms of visuals and especially in terms of songs- the soundtrack really is fantastic. If you go in expecting a flashy performance of excellent songs with equally excellent choreography and just treat the plot as a means to an end to go from song to song, there is enjoyment to be found. A shame however, that such incredible music is weighed down by such an underwhelming plot.

★★★

La La Land (2016) review

Rarely does a film touch, inspire and exhaust you all at once. But with his musical, ‘La La Land’, Damien Chazelle, director of the equally incredible ‘Whiplash’, has again managed to create a modern masterpiece. The unique stylistic choices as well as the magical soundtrack make this a filmmaker’s dream and truly worthy of its academy awards.

There is more than a hint of homage to the classic MGM musicals of the 50’s here and you’d be forgiven for forgetting throughout its two-hour runtime that it’s set in modern day Hollywood. The stylistic production choices make us view L.A with the hope, glitz and glamour that aspiring actors, musicians and writers feel in the city of dreams. Our conduits to explore the main theme of love or following your dreams are Emma Stone as Mia, an aspiring actress and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, who dreams of owning a jazz club. Both play their roles with a blend of stylistic joy and contrasting harsh realism. As we follow their perfectly coordinated dance numbers against beautiful, typical Hollywood imagery we are concurrently shown the harsh truth; in order to achieve their dreams, they cannot be together. Or, so the ending leads us to believe. The brutality comes from a lingering thought that, as with all relationships, with better communication and some slightly altered choices, they could’ve had their cake and eaten it too.

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As well as presenting its central theme with near flawless execution, the film also employs a visual style that makes it entirely unique, yet familiar. Many scenes keep the dialogue to a minimum and let the fantastic imagery, colours and music do most of the talking. Every element of the production team is clearly giving their best work and is allowed to show off with some of the most beautiful shots I’ve ever seen in a movie. The acting focus is also put almost exclusively onto Gosling and Stone bar the odd secondary character. This allows us as an audience to empathise, understand and relate to both of these people, making the ending all the more tragic. The 1950’s style camera footage presenting what could’ve been between them is equal parts clever and emotionally manipulative. I believe Chazelle may in fact be, an evil mastermind akin to a Bond villain.

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Despite all of the excellent cinematographic and stylistic choices, a musical would be nothing with mediocre songs. Luckily, all of them hit the mark. Though most are not your typical musical karaoke songs, they enhance the mood and drive the narrative forward beautifully. The use of colour as a device is also wonderfully employed here to drive the stereotypical view of showbiz, with strong block colours in both costume and set and backgrounds that could almost be paintings. Couple this with some incredibly inventive cinematography and every shot becomes a dream to watch.

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‘La La Land’ is one of few films I’ve seen in the past few years that deserves the title of a modern masterpiece. It’s engaging, beautiful and a true joy to watch. It uses every creative element of the filmmaking process to create something not only visually stunning, but narratively interesting and exciting, leaving the audience breathless by its conclusion. A comment on the pursuit of dreams and what we’ll sacrifice to achieve them, it’s in my mind, a perfect picture.

★★★★★

 

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