Given the relatively close proximity of their release dates, to say nothing of their both being about gay rock icons of the '70s, Rocketman is almost inevitably going to be compared to last fall's Oscar-winning Freddie Mercury salute Bohemian Rhapsody. If the latter was a musical bio-pic, though, the former is most definitely a bio-pic musical, and as such, it's sentimental, corny, kind of silly, and frequently campy beyond belief. It is, in other words, exactly what you want from a celebration of the early life and music of Elton John – an explosive pop fantasia of deep tenderness, unapologetic shamelessness, and unbridled love for its subject.
If I told you that Rocketman opens, as it does, with Elton striding into a group-therapy session and the film consequently flashing back to his major life events pre-rehab, you might roll your eyes, thinking, “This again?!” (Substitute the rebab facility with Wembley Stadium and you've got Bohemian Rhapsody.) Your eyes might roll further if I mentioned the traditional bio-pic signposts that screenwriter Lee Hall packs for the flashback trail: the lack of affection and attention from little Reginald Dwight's parents; the kindly grandmother whose support directly leads to his success; the meeting with the first collaborative artist who truly gets him; the rocky road to a recording contract; the speedy fame; the excesses of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll; the professional breakups; the personal breakdowns; the hopeful comeback; the redemption. You've seen all this before, and if not in movies such as Bohemian Rhapsody and its type, then in just about every Behind the Music-esque documentary on a famed artist or band you've ever seen – the type of entertainment whose presentation is utterly unsurprising and even bland, but you adore it anyway because, you know ... . That music.
That was how I enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody, a work that, after the mid-production firing of director Bryan Singer, was completed by Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher. And during scattered scenes throughout this Elton John feature, that was how I enjoyed Rocketman, too – as a pleasant-enough way to get from Hit Song A to Hit Song B. But the reason the film overall works as gloriously well as it does comes from its awareness of itself as a bio-pic musical rather than a musical bio-pic.
Bohemian Rhapsody roars thunderously to life whenever Queen's original music is performed (albeit lip synced). It made perfect sense when movie audiences sang along and stomped their feet to “We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You.” Rocketman doesn't allow you that luxury. Elton's songs are sung in unfamiliar arrangements, and with unfamiliar vocal emphases. They're sung because they fit the mood, not the narrative. (And certainly not the chronology.) They're sung by characters who aren't Elton – or, in one delightful studio number, Kiki Dee. On more than a few occasions, they're actually sung by performers who are most definitely not trained, or even passable, singers. Yet what results from this potentially alienating hodgepodge is instead magically illuminating, allowing those of us who've known and loved the artist's tunes for decades the chance to hear his 1970s classics – “Crocodile Rock,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “I'm Still Standing,” and so many others – with fresh ears. Bohemian Rhapsody thrills you with what you already know, and there's nothing inherently wrong (and quite a bit right) with that. Rocketman, however, lets us rediscover our passion instead of merely relive it.
Amazingly, this is true even of Fletcher's and Hall's book scenes, because all of those aforementioned bio-pic tenets get musical-ized here in unexpected and consistently inventive ways. The familial frustrations of grade-school Reginald (Matthew Illesley) are brought to a boil in an extravagantly staged take on “The Bitch Is Back,” with the child and his adult counterpart the only Technicolor figures in a desaturated world. Teen Reg (Kit Connor) grows into maturity through a “Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting” complete with frenzied editing, lavish choreography, and motorcycle-riding hoodlums. “Tiny Dancer” is a late-night campfire reverie sung to an unhearing, unwilling romantic ideal. “Crocodile Rock” has the infectious power to lift the singer, and his audience at the Troubador, literally off the floor. The title track is an underwater union between a miserably sad man and his former self 20 years prior. Fletcher and Hall don't at all ignore, or attempt to get us to ignore, the inherent clichés in the bio-pic formula. They embrace the hell out of them, and reconfigure them so that they divinely, theatrically extol the genius of Elton's compositions and collaborator Bernie Taupin's lyrics. This is fan service, beyond a doubt. It's also something akin to alchemy, especially in Taron Egerton's remarkable channeling of Sir Elton.
Fletcher's outing is filled with cartoon monsters – principally Richard Madden as a hatefully opportunistic John Reid and Steven Mackintosh and Bryce Dallas Howard as Reg's simultaneously judgmental and oblivious parents. (Howard, though, is allotted one hilarious moment of naturalism when her Sheila Dwight smiles and raises her eyebrows – “O-o-o-kay, then” – after her gay son marries a woman.) Yet as amusing as they and the film's other intentionally one-note characters are, they can't hold a candle (in the wind) to Jamie Bell's astoundingly heartfelt Taupin, who sees all of Elton's failings, excesses, and misinterpretations, and still steadfastly refuses to stop loving him.
And none of these figures holds a candle to Egerton – partly by design, and partly by the actor's and Fletcher's wise choice to augment their subject's talent and personality rather than purely imitate them. Although he's a lovely singer, a spectacular mimic, and dons costume designer Julian Day's flamboyant wardrobe selections with magnificent confidence, Egerton is no Elton John in performance. And he doesn't have to be, considering how completely, almost ferally Egerton's natural charisma enhances the charisma of the artist he's playing. Only on very rare occasions in Rocketman did I think, “Man … Taron Egerton's so great in this!”, even though he undeniably was. More often, I thought, “Man … Elton John is so great,” and my appreciation for the actor's vocally and physically adept, heartbreaking, balls-to-the-wall performance only truly hit me on the drive home. Watching Egerton's Elton work his way through his first stab at “Your Song,” locking eyes with the immeasurably moved best friend who wrote it for him (and for us), I was a bit of a weepy wreck … just as I was when Ewan McGregor launched into that same song roughly a half-hour into Moulin Rouge!. It's taken 18 years, but with Rocketman, I may have finally found a screen musical I love as much as that one.
Octavia Spencer has played so many salt-of-the-earth, even saintly figures since her 2011 breakout in The Help that it's a lot of fun, for at least half the movie's length, to watch her play a vengeful psychopath in the new horror thriller Ma. The film casts her as Sue Ann, a lonely, middle-aged veterinarian's assistant who's playfully coerced into buying booze for a group of bored teens. She's subsequently asked again, at which point Sue Ann offers her own home – a spacious house in the woods with a modestly furnished basement – for the youths to cavort in. Before long, surrounded by hordes of guests without valid I.D.s, Sue Ann has become the life-of-the-party hostess with unlimited alcohol, hip-hop on the stereo, and pizza rolls in the oven that she never was in high school. But you know kids. After Sue Ann begins acting odd, and then suspicious, and then – most appallingly of all – clingy, her newfound pals are, like, so over her. Sue Ann, however, is not over them, which is when the woman's behavior switches from benign to murderous, and Spencer's familiar, beatific smile subtly morphs into an ear-to-ear grin fit for the Joker.
Had Ma been kept this simple – 40-something nerd enacts grisly revenge on the callow teens who spurned her – it might have been a low-rent classic. But screenwriter Scotty Landes keeps convoluting events, or ignoring them completely, so that the storyline winds up almost incoherent. (Is Sue Ann's revenge accidental or, as the woman's Facebook searches suggest, premeditated? Did every adult in this Ohio town coincidentally attend the same high school over the same years? Why is there no news coverage of the dead jogger on the street or the dead woman in the dog kennel? Exactly how many hours or days are passing between scenes anyway?) And director Tate Taylor, who guided Spencer toward her Oscar win for The Help – and likely secured the participation of that film's Allison Janney for the worthless role of Spencer's boss here – further muddies the waters with a pointless flashback structure that only reaffirms what we already assumed, and what was already being made perfectly clear in Octavia Spencer's wonderfully unsettling, laudably complex portrayal.
Beyond its lead, there are some additional perks to Taylor's latest: Diana Silvers is watchful and empathetic as the kindest of the mean teens; Juliette Lewis lends the film her traditional knack for character nuance; when Sue Ann goes off the rails near the end, hoo-boy does she ever, leading to moments of gory retaliation that made even this horror-flick veteran wince. But Ma remains the most irritating kind of failure, because it feels as though we – meaning those of us rooting for the film due to its promising setup and Spencer's go-for-broke turn – care more about the end result than its filmmakers appear to. There are so many abrupt character reversals and lapses in narrative that I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that a good half-hour of the film wound up on the cutting-room floor. A 129-minute Ma might not have been better than the 99-minute version we have, but at least the damned thing might've made sense.
GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS
Ex-spouses played by Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga endlessly argue over whether it's smarter to protect gargantuan subterranean beings or eradicate them. Characters stare open-mouthed at the skies while Heaven-shaking beasts roar their displeasure. A nuclear weapon is employed as a defibrillator. And lord how I wish I had more to say about Godzilla: King of the Monsters than I do, because director/co-writer Michael Dougherty's follow-up to 2014's Godzilla – and about a million Godzilla pics before that – feels like nothing so much as a competent-enough, completely forgettable entry in a franchise that'll extend (sigh ...) for years to come, at least if its cameo by King Kong and frequent references to Skull Island are any indication. (Surprise! Godzilla vs. Kong is coming in 2020!)
But seriously: What do you want to know? Are Godzilla and his fellow monsters – which, title be damned, the film insists we call “Titans” – big and loud? Of course. Are they scary? Not really. (Dougherty's film practices in that age-old blockbuster trickery of having nearly every large-scale sequence take place during monsoon season, the rain theoretically helping disguise iffy effects.) Is there mass destruction? Duh, complete with loads of globe-trotting demolition and Boston taking the climactic beating that San Francisco endured five years ago. Is there an international cast of foreign stars, solid American B-teamers, and Oscar nominees perhaps questioning their current representation? You bet: Beyond Chandler and Farmiga, we get Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O'Shea Jackson, David Strathairn, and a gum-chomping Bradley Whitford – the latter, I assume, playing a role originally earmarked for a decades-younger actor. (Whitford's Dr. Rick Stanton calling everyone “man” and “dude” for two-plus hours was one thing, but when he questioned the logic of careening toward a radioactive site saying “I just want to have kids one day,” I may have done a double-take. Isn't Whitford, like, 60? Just when was this guy planning to start that family?!)
Are there kick-ass images? Absolutely: The sight of Ghidorah, in all its three-headed glory, perching and shrieking atop an active volcano was a good one, as was the speedy mass of smoke and debris encroaching on Fenway Park. Are any of these images truly gut-level memorable? Ask me again in a week, but I'm guessing no, not really. Is Godzilla himself cool, at least? I guess – if you can see him through the incessant storms, and if you're not in the restroom or lobby during his few minutes onscreen. (I'm trying to think of entertainments whose title figures appeared with even less frequency, and the only one I can come up with is Waiting for Godot.) Long, laborious, and deathly repetitive, and with its only nods toward humor corny cartoon-bubble gags easily translatable for the film's overseas audience, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is merely this year's most recent blockbuster-of-the-week in all the banality that description entails. Here's hoping, though, that at least Stranger Things' superb Millie Bobby Brown, in her role as the ultra-resourceful teen daughter to Chandler and Farmiga, has more to do the next time we see her. In one brief scene, Brown is shown crawling through a series of air ducts on her way to end a monster invasion, and you instantly realize that she doesn't feel like the child of either Chandler or Farmiga. She feels like the natural descendent of Sigourney Weaver.