Rocketman (2019)

2020 #3
Dexter Fletcher | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

Rocketman

The director and star of Eddie the Eagle reunite for another biopic of a bespectacled British icon… though I’m not sure how favourable global music megastar Elton John would consider that comparison.

Both films concern a regular lad from a working-class background who dreams of something bigger — in Eddie’s case, Olympic glory; in Elton’s, music stardom. But that’s more or less where the films diverge, because whereas Eddie’s ski jumping adventure was rendered as a family-friendly comedy, Elton’s seduction by sex and drugs and rock and roll is altogether more adult. But it’s also a world away from grim and gritty seriousness, because director Dexter Fletcher regularly injects flights of fancy and fantasy. Elton may end up in a very dark place (before inevitable salvation, natch), but it’s a helluva lot of fun getting there.

In my review of the year before’s big musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody — which Fletcher ended up guiding through a third of its shoot and post-production after credited helmsman Bryan Singer was fired — I wondered which director was responsible for that film’s “occasional bold directorial flourishes”. On the evidence of Rocketman, I’d guess they were Fletcher’s idea. His staging and camerawork are often highly imaginative here, really cutting loose during the musical numbers. (Fletcher’s next job is taking over the Sherlock Holmes films from Guy Ritchie, a task that certainly requires the kind of visual panache he’s demonstrated here.)

Piano man

Indeed, this isn’t just “a film about music”, but a proper musical. It isn’t just a simplistic jukebox musical either, nor a standard musician biopic where the character performs some of their hits. Well, it is both of those — it’s a jukebox musical because all the songs are from Elton’s back catalogue (plus one new one so it could vie for the Oscar, of course), and the character of Elton John does perform some of his hits in recording studios and on concert stages. But it’s also more than that in the way it’s executed. Other characters break into song from time to time too, and there are clever reimaginings of several recognisable tracks. This is a restlessly imaginative movie.

Egerton is superb in the lead role, crafting Elton as a much more nuanced figure than he’s sometimes regarded; a truly rounded individual with a considered interior life. One might argue the whole drugs storyline is somewhat predictable or even rote, with some surprising mirrors of the much-criticised Bo Rhap (“surprising” because where that film was roundly criticised for its clichés this has received a much more generous critical response)… but if that’s the true story, that’s the true story, right? Egerton certainly negotiates it with believability. Much praise for the film has focused on his performance, leading to significant awards nominations (like at BAFTA) and wins (a Golden Globe), but there are several great supporting players too, not least Jamie Bell as Elton’s lifelong songwriter and true friend, Bernie Taupin.

The cumulative effect is a movie that is highly enjoyable but not without depth; that offers toe-tapping entertainment and filmmaking thrills in its musical numbers, while also digging into its subject’s troubles and their causes. Like an eagle, or a rocket, it doesn’t just fly, it soars.

5 out of 5

Rocketman is on Sky Cinema from today.

The Lion King (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #52

The greatest adventure of all is
finding our place in the circle of life.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 88 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 15th June 1994
UK Release: 7th October 1994
First Seen: VHS, c.1995

Stars
Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Election)
James Earl Jones (Star Wars, Conan the Barbarian)
Jeremy Irons (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Die Hard with a Vengeance)
Rowan Atkinson (Bean, Johnny English)

Directors
Roger Allers (Open Season, The Prophet)
Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little, Mr. Peabody & Sherman)

Screenwriters
Irene Mecchi (Brave, Strange Magic)
Jonathan Roberts (James and the Giant Peach, Jack Frost)
Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, Alice Through the Looking Glass)

Story by
Deep breath… Burny Mattinson, Barry Johnson, Lorna Cook, Thom Enriquez, Andy Gaskill, Gary Trousdale, Jim Capobianco, Kevin Harkey, Jorgen Klubien, Chris Sanders, Tom Sito, Larry Leker, Joe Ranft, Rick Maki, Ed Gombert, Francis Glebas & Mark Kausler; with additional story by J.T. Allen, George Scribner, Miguel Tejada-Flores, Jenny Tripp, Bob Tzudiker, Chris Vogler, Kirk Wise & Noni White; and the story supervisor was Brenda Chapman.

Sort of based on
Hamlet, a play by William Shakespeare.

Songs by
Elton John (The Muse, Gnomeo & Juliet)
Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Aladdin)

The Story
The savannahs of Africa are ruled by the lion Mufasa, a kindly king who is struggling to instil some sense of life’s importance in his reckless young son and heir, Simba. But Mufasa’s brother, Scar, lusts for power, and manipulates Mufasa and Simba to gain it…

Our Hero
Lion cub Simba is heir to his father’s throne as ruler of the Pride Lands, and a naughty, unruly prince who just can’t wait to be king. All that changes when he winds up outcast, and has to learn to grow up before returning to save his kingdom.

Our Villain
King Mufasa’s jealous brother, Scar, who also just can’t wait to be king. Obviously that’s not going to happen under the regular rules of succession, but Scar is a cunning and conniving sort. Well, he is the villain.

Best Supporting Characters
After running away, Simba falls in with meerkat Timon (voiced by Nathan Lane) and warthog Pumbaa (voiced by Ernie Sabella), who have a laid-back attitude to life, and raise the lion cub to have the same. So successful they had their own spin-off series and were the stars of a sequel, too.

Memorable Quote
Mufasa: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”
Simba: “But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?”
Mufasa: “Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass, and so we are all connected in the great circle of life.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Hakuna matata” — a wonderful phrase, it means no worries for the rest of your days.

Memorable Scene
The opening sequence, in which all the animals gather to celebrate the birth of Simba, scored to Circle of Life, is a majestic sequence — so impressive, in fact, that Disney used it, uncut and unadorned, as the film’s trailer.

Best Song
Big romantic number Can You Feel the Love Tonight won the Oscar, and there were nominations for epic opener Circle of Life and quotable comedy hit Hakuna Matata, and you shouldn’t overlook the fun and impressive choreography of I Just Can’t Wait to Be King, but for me the best number is Scar’s Be Prepared. I do love a good villain’s song.

Technical Wizardry
The Lion King continues Disney’s integration of CGI into their animated features, this time using it to create the pivotal wildebeest stampede. A new program had to be written for the sequence, which allowed hundreds of computer generated animals to run without colliding into each other. It took the CG department three years to animate the scene.

Making of
Voice actor Frank Welker (who has over 760 credits to his name on IMDb, including originating Fred in Scooby-Doo and voicing Megatron in the Transformers animated series) provided all of the film’s lion roars. No recordings of actual lions were used.

Next time…
As one of the biggest successes of the Disney Renaissance, The Lion King has naturally had more than its share of follow-ups. The headline has to be the stage musical adaptation of the film, which opened in 1997. It’s the third longest-running show in Broadway history, and is “the highest-earning entertainment property in history in any medium”. In 1998, direct-to-video sequel The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride was released. Apparently its plot is influenced by Romeo and Juliet. A second direct-to-DVD sequel, The Lion King 1½ (known as The Lion King 3 in some countries, including the UK), was released in 2004. It’s based on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, re-telling the first movie from Timon and Pumbaa’s perspective. I watched it years ago and really enjoyed it, an opinion supported by its strong 76% on Rotten Tomatoes. On television, spin-off series The Lion King’s Timon & Pumbaa ran for three seasons from 1995, and just last year TV ‘movie’ (it’s only 45 minutes) The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar heralded the start of a new series, The Lion Guard. It’s been renewed for a second season.

Awards
2 Oscars (Song (Can You Feel the Love Tonight), Score)
2 Oscar nominations (Song (both Circle of Life and Hakuna Matata))
2 BAFTA nominations (Music, Sound)
3 Annie Awards (Film, Voice Acting (Jeremy Irons), Individual Achievement for Story Contribution)
3 Annie nominations (Individual Achievement for Artistic Excellence (x3))
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Performance by a Younger Actor (Jonathan Taylor Thomas))

What the Critics Said
“Even the inescapable hype cannot diminish the fact that this is one great film. Consider that this movie delivers strong characters, a sophisticated story, good music, captivating visuals and loads of emotion — all within the confines of a G-rated cartoon. […] The most exhilarating part of The Lion King is that it’s not just great animation, but superior filmmaking. Outstanding character animation is a given at Disney, which handles the nuances of movement better than anyone. But the last few animated features show an increasing mastery of cinematography techniques. In The Lion King, the eye of the camera ranges from point of view to overhead to moving with the scene. The opening sequence where the plains animals trek to see the newborn cub and the wildebeest stampede scene are breathtaking.” — Bill Wedo, Philadelphia Daily News

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Timone and Pumba [sic] are two of the more interesting comic relief characters in Disney films. I’d argue that they’re one of the most wonderful depictions of a same-sex parenting couple that I have ever seen. I don’t want to get drawn into a debate over their sexuality, but the pair are partners in the truest sense of the word, sharing a life. They sleep together, for crying out loud. I don’t care about their sexuality or anything like that, because we’ll never get an answer on that and it’s immaterial. All that matters is that they complete one another, and it’s sweet. […] Even when Simba arrives, it’s very clear that the dynamic is different – Simba isn’t an equal partner in the relationship like Timone and Pumba. They’re a family, but Timone and Pumba are more of a couple.” — Darren Mooney, the m0vie blog

Verdict

My third Disney pick is consecutive to my previous two (Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast) in Disney’s history of animated classics, which goes to show how successful their ’90s Renaissance was. (Also, when my childhood was.) The Lion King succeeds by combining a selection of memorable, hummable songs with an epic tale of royal politicking — but, y’know, in a Disney way. Unafraid to include plot twists that place it alongside Bambi in the company’s canon, but with some well-performed comedy characters to lighten the mood, it manages to be one of Disney’s most entertaining but also most philosophical (in its way) films.

#53 has… my sword, and my bow, and my axe.