Lily James and Himesh Patel in a scene from “Yesterday.” (Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures via AP)
Of all the here’s-a-cool-way-to-make-a-pop-biopic! ideas floating around in “Rocketman” that work better in theory than they do onscreen, one of the most pivotal was the decision to have Taron Egerton do his own singing. That almost never happens in music biopics (Rami Malek lip-synched in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Jamie Foxx lip-synched in “Ray,” Marion Cotillard lip-synched in “La Vie en Rose”). Media voices have cooed over Egerton’s vocalizing as if they were the proud parents of a kid vying for championship of a karaoke competition. “Look, he’s really doing it! And he sounds just like Elton John!”
Except that he doesn’t. In the ’70s, the fluky flavor (and power) of Elton John’s voice was connected to the contrast between the way he spoke — incredibly posh and rounded English tones — and the bluesy down-home American idiom that he infused into nearly every sung syllable. (Even in a song as mellow as “Your Song,” he would sing, “And you can tell everybod-eh.”) What you hear, in almost every line of his phrasing, is the ebullient theatrical muscle it took to make that reach. Taron Egerton can sing, but it’s exactly that aspect that his voice doesn’t have. The songs in “Rocketman” sound “good” as far as it goes, but they’re stripped of Elton’s distinct vocal personality. According to the film’s topsy-turvy logic, though, this somehow renders them old but new again. To put it bluntly: They can now be resold.
Everybody knows, because it’s a cornerstone of modern movie mythology, that two fabled films of the 1970s created the blockbuster mentality: “Jaws” (1975) and “Star Wars” (1977). Actually, I’ve always thought that two additional movies were part of that story: “The Exorcist” (1973), which tapped and shaped the up-and-coming appetite for overexplicit sensationalism, and “Rocky” (1976), which brought back the feel-good ideology of happy endings and, in doing so, helped to usher in the age of Reagan.
Yet even if you include those two, what isn’t nearly as remembered now — thought it marked a fundamental change in the aesthetics, and business, of movies — was the revolution wrought by “Saturday Night Fever” (1977). The movie’s soundtrack, one of the greatest ever, was beyond huge — it was a disco volcano that kept erupting. “American Graffiti,” or the films of Elvis Presley, might have paved the way, but what kicked off with “Saturday Night Fever,” in the corporate Hollywood that was coming into being, was the perception that the movie and music industries could effectively merge. Movies could be vehicles for creating and marketing pop soundtracks, and pop soundtracks could be vehicles for creating and marketing movies. This led directly to the age of “Flashdance,” “Footloose,” “Top Gun,” and a thousand lesser titles, from “Thank God It’s Friday” to “D.C. Cab,” that were conceived and packaged to piggyback on their MTV-and-radio-friendly soundtracks. Films and music would now be tails wagging each other, which created a new form: the movie as synergistic tie-in musical.
The Beatles and Elton John are hardly typical subjects for a pop-music film. They are gods among giants. As such, they deserve — I would say demand — a kind of big-screen treatment that exudes transcendence. Yet “Yesterday” and “Rocketman” aren’t jukebox musicals that send you out on a cloud of rapture. They’re synergistic tie-in musicals that are out to rebrand the Beatles and Elton John for a new generation. Maybe that’s why neither movie comes close to touching the greatness of its subject.
In recent weeks, I’ve had more than a few conversations about “Rocketman,” the biography-in-a-blender Elton John musical that, I confess, absolutely drove me up a wall. On the surface, at least, the film couldn’t be more different from “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was a conventionally middlebrow push-your-buttons biopic. That one really was a Bryan Singer film, though it was finished by Dexter Fletcher, who directs “Rocketman” as if it were a Baz Luhrmann movie staged as a badly lit, thinly scripted Netflix throwaway. Yet when people talk about “Rocketman,” they sound a lot like they do when they talk about “Bohemian Rhapsody.” There’s a fan-service reductionism to the whole megillah, and to the way that the chief sentiment you hear always comes down to the same thing: “I loved hearing those songs!” Well, yes. Who doesn’t?
Early on in “Rocketman,” when Egerton’s Elton, having stalked offstage in his outsize orange devil costume, is sitting there in a support group, looking back on the life that brought him to this moment, the line “I was justified when I was five” is used to spin the action back to his childhood and the film’s first musical number, “The Bitch Is Back.” I watched the sequence that follows never having the faintest idea of why this song would apply to thissituation. Like everyone else, though, I enjoyed hearing the killer hooks of “The Bitch Is Back.”
Yet if hearing those songs were all it took to make a good musical, then the legendary 1978 Robert Stigwood debacle “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” starring (yes, starring!) the Bee Gees in their post-“Fever” prime, might be a spectacle of high-kitsch joy, instead of one of the most atrocious movie musicals ever created. “Rocketman,” with its slipshod staging and “stylized” chronology (i.e., the events of Elton John’s life seem not just out of sequence but seriously out of whack), is a bubbleheaded travesty of the musical biopic that Elton John should have had. (And had that movie been made, it would have been twice the hit.)
That said, I’m seriously shocked that more people aren’t more disappointed by what a botched opportunity “Rocketman” represents. The movie has been hyped in such a way to make it sound stodgy if you complain about its iPod-random chronology. But when Elton shows up for his fabled American debut at the Troubadour in L.A. in 1970 and plays “Crocodile Rock,” I’m sorry, that’s the equivalent of making a biopic about the Beatles in which they launch their Shea Stadium concert in 1965 with a cut off the White Album.
Elton John’s music and image developed radically over the first half of the ’70s, but the way “Rocketman” tells it, he simply touched down in the world as this nerd glam prince with a hundred pairs of glasses churning out sublime synthesizer earworms. In the movie, we almost never see Elton discovering who he is — as a musician, or as an image of pansexual flamboyance. Maybe that’s why the movie, in its greatest-hits-ripped-out-of-context way, wobbles around the kicky splendor of the songs. It uses them as musical bullet points, but there’s scarcely a moment when it figures out how to sit back and catch the lightning majesty of what Elton John created.
If “Rocketman” is at least guilty of a certain operatic overreach, “Yesterday” revives the Fab Four by reducing them. The movie, which opened Friday, is a what-if? trifle, an attempt to turn a world without the Beatles into a happy-face “Twilight Zone” episode that becomes a fantasy of rebooting the Beatles. As I said in my review, the most telling aspect of “Yesterday” is that it presents the Kate McKinnon character as a music-business manager of snarky corruption, yet her master plan to market the Beatles is treated less as satire than as the film’s own fantasy of selling the “ultimate” supergroup. You could say, “No, the movie isn’t really on the side of that.” But I would suggest that the pop commodity fetishism of “Yesterday” is wound right into the movie’s blandly iconic, number-one-with-a-bullet song choices (“Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “Help!,” “All You Need Is Love”). It’s as if the PR department had nixed the notion of doing anything more adventurous or offbeat.
One could argue that we live in the real world, and that it’s impossible to make an expensive movie about the Beatles or Elton John without treating those songs as marketing hooks. Fair enough. Yet the problem with “Yesterday” and “Rocketman” isn’t that they sell the Beatles or Elton John out. It’s that, in devoting so much of themselves to imagining how these incandescent artists might appeal to audiences today, the movies never fully remember — or capture — how they appealed to audiences back then, when all that selling seemed so far away.