Jamie Bell

Rocketman

25/05/10

Rock star biopics are big business of late. The rather pedestrian (and factually flawed) Bohemian Rhapsody absolutely cleaned up at the box office and even garnered some ill-deserved awards into the bargain. Rocketman has the same director as Bo Rhap – or, at least, Dexter Fletcher steered the former film to fruition after Bryan Singer was obliged to step away from it. But Rocketman almost serves as an object lesson in how entertaining this genre can be when the filmakers have the balls to step away from the obvious and offer up something infinitely more experimental.

This is a fantasia, in its purest form, something that dares to take Elton John’s life story and play around with it. Ironically, in the process, it manages to get closer to the truth of the man behind the myth than Bo Rhap ever managed with Freddie Mercury.

When we first meet Elton, he’s attending a therapy session, dressed as a bright red devil, having just walked away from an important gig – and then, in flashback, we encounter young Reginald Dwight (Matthew Illesley), strugglng to obtain affection from his distant parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), establishing a distance between them that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Reginald learns he has an aptitude for playing the piano and an ability to effortlessly pick up any tune he hears. Pretty soon, he is older Reg (Kit Connor) and, in the space of one breathless fairground dance routine, he’s grown up to be Taron Egerton. We follow his career: his meeting with kindred spirit, Bernie Taupin (Jaimie Bell), his signing with hard-nosed business manager, Dick James (Stephen Graham), and his love affair with the cruelly manipulative John Reid (Richard Madden).

There’s his career making gig at LA’s Troubador Club and then all the manic excesses of rock hedonism are unleashed – alcoholism, drug and sex addiction, bulimia, that disastrous attempt at marriage… you name it, it’s all encompassed in a series of inventively staged scenes, backed by a seemingly endless collection of solid gold songs. Ironic then, that the film’s most effective moment has Elton belting out a cover version of The Who’s Pinball Wizard, while his piano spins giddily around and he goes through a whole collection of iconic costume transformations.

This film doesn’t attempt to cover EJ’s entire career, ending after his long spell in rehab and his triumphant return with I’m Still Standing, but it’s endlessly entertaining and doesn’t drag for a moment, not even through the inevitable nods to redemption at its conclusion. I am properly engaged from start to finish. Oh, and importantly – I think –  that’s actually Taron Egerton singing all the songs, uncannily nailing EJ’s distinctive phrasing, without it ever feeling like an impersonation.

With so many reasons to go and see it, Rocketman is in serious danger of giving the rock biopic a good name. And Dexter Fletcher is now clearly the go-to man for musicians with a story to tell.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

17/11/17

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is Peter Turner’s story. Based on his memoir of the same name, the film, scripted by Matt Greenhalgh, tells of Turner’s affair with fading film star, Gloria Grahame, and the extraordinary tale of how she came to live out her last days with his mum and dad in 1980s Liverpool.

The performances here are exemplary: both Jamie Bell (as Peter) and Annette Bening (as Gloria) are on top form, and their relationship is affectingly conveyed. Bening convinces absolutely as the ex-Hollywood sexpot, holding her head up high and forging a career in British theatre: proud but vulnerable; confident but insecure. Bell is also utterly credible as the young Turner, flattered by the attentions of someone so famous, falling hopelessly in love. And it’s a touching story: rejected by the film industry, out of touch with her family and dying of cancer, Gloria turns to her ex-lover for the warmth she knows his ‘ordinary’ family can offer, and his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) are more than happy to oblige.

A shame, then, that there isn’t more on offer here. There’s a stellar cast without much to do: Vanessa Redgrave, as Gaynor’s mother, says almost nothing of note; Frances Barber, as her sister, does what she can with a couple of bitchy lines. Walters stands out, as she always does, but is criminally under-used, never called upon to offer anything more than ‘kindly mum.’ The marvellous Stephen Graham plays Peter’s brother, but his talent is wasted: he just sits at the kitchen table wearing one of Harry Enfield’s Scouser wigs, whinging occasionally and looking meaningfully at his strangely silent wife (Leanne Best).

I think the problem is that it’s all very rose-tinted, too closely based, perhaps, on Turner’s memoir, without enough space for the spiky complexity of human reality. It’s superficial and chocolate-boxy: a special memory preserved as in a photo-book, rather than an engaging film that allows its characters to show their flaws. And the story arc lacks drama too, never really building, never really drawing us in. This is a film that relies entirely on its central performances; the casting director (Debbie McWilliams) has done a sterling job; thanks to her, it’s not an entirely missed opportunity.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield