Stephen Graham

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

Yardie

06/09/18

Idris Elba’s debut feature film is an interesting one. Okay, so it’s a little patchy, but there’s real heart here, and energy, and some fabulous performances. Based on the cult novel by Victor Headley, this is as much a character study as anything else, and lead actor Aml Ameen (D), is mesmerising in the central role.

We start off in 70s Jamaica, where young D lives with his brother, Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary). Jerry is a gentle soul, keen to broker peace between rival gangs, and make Kingston a safer place. But, having secured a truce, the triumphant party he hosts in No-Man’s-Land is abruptly shattered by a teenager wielding a gun. Jerry is killed, and D’s life is changed forever.

We next see him ten years later, and he’s a troubled man, struggling to repress his rage. He’s been taken under the wing of one of the gang leaders, King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), whose music production company tells only half the story of his wealth. Fox is also a drug dealer, and, when D’s anger at his brother’s murder threatens his business, D is quickly dispatched to London, to sell a large batch of cocaine to Fox’s London connection, Rico (Stephen Graham).

But D’s path does not run smoothly in the UK; he’s too full of fury to seek a quiet life. Haunted by his brother’s memory, D seems determined to self-destruct, jeopardising everything, including his relationship with Yvonne (Shantol Jackson), his childhood sweetheart, and their daughter, Vanessa (Myla-Rae Hutchinson-Dunwell).

Where this film works is in the evocation of the period, the nightlife and the music. It looks fantastic, all vibrancy and colour, and the atmosphere, fuelled by an urgent reggae soundtrack, is electric. But there’s something lacking in the plotting, I think, a strange lack of intensity in D’s quest for revenge that doesn’t quite match the violence he eventually unleashes. Some of the London criminals feel like caricatures, and at times it’s hard to understand what D’s motivation is.

Still, it’s an eminently watchable movie, and the imagery is still imprinted on my mind.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Funny Cow

22/04/18

If Adrian Shergold’s film tells us anything about life in 1970s England, the overriding message is that being a female standup comedian was clearly no laughing matter. Take the eponymous Funny Cow for example – we are never told the character’s actual name and indeed, when we first meet her, she’s still Funny Calf (Macy Shackleton), a self-assured youngster with a tendency to live in a dream world and tell tall stories, something that earns her the undisguised hatred of her peers. She is going through what might be called a troubled childhood. Her mother (Christine Bottomley – and later in the film, Lindsey Coulson) is a hopeless alcoholic and her father (Stephen Graham) a short-tempered bully, but none of this is enough to subdue her fighting spirit.

Pretty soon, FC has grown up to be Maxine Peake and has acquired her own short-tempered bully of a husband, Bob (Tony Pitts, who also wrote the script). Bob is an aggressive slob, ever ready with a foul-mouthed put-down and a helpful head-butt whenever his wife steps out of line. But FC remains indomitable, and at a working men’s club one evening, has a kind of epiphany when she witnesses veteran comic, Lenny (Alun Armstrong), toiling his way through a time-worn routine to the undisguised derision of the audience. She is the one person there who finds him funny. She decides this is the life she is destined for and, whatever it takes, she’ll make it happen. The two of them form an uneasy alliance, as she follows him from gig-to-gig, watching his inexorable slide into oblivion while honing her own craft.

Funny Cow is a strangely unsettling film – it tells its story though a series of vignettes and cuts back and forth in time with a kind of gleeful exuberance, each section marked by hand written title cards. The stand-up routines we’re offered aren’t generally all that amusing – indeed, most of them are more like tortured confessionals, as FC talks direct to camera. It certainly isn’t a recruiting campaign for would be stand-ups. Even when she’s made a success of her chosen career, FC is shunned by virtually everyone she knows. A scene where she makes an uncomfortable visit to her brother, Mike (also played by Stephen Graham), and his family is particularly toe-curling.

It’s by no means a perfect film. The usually dependable Paddy Considine struggles somewhat as Angus, the middle class bookshop owner to whom FC runs when she realises she can no longer live with Bob. There’s nothing wrong with his performance per se, but the script somehow fails to give him a single line that convinces, making him little more a caricature, all vintage brandy and visits to the thee-ay-tah. It’s one of the film’s few missteps.

But one thing is for sure: Peake is an extraordinary presence in the lead role, displaying an almost luminous quality that seems to light up the screen whenever she appears. Here is a brilliant actor at the very height of her powers and this performance confirms her as one of the best and most versatile of her generation. It’s also a film that stays with me long after I’ve left the cinema, aided no doubt by Richard Hawley’s memorable theme song; he also makes a cameo here as a would-be performer at FC’s first disastrous audition.

Eagle-eyed viewers will spot some genuine comics in cameo roles: Dianne Morgan, Vic Reeves and John Bishop to name but three. Keep your eyes peeled for others.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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