Tales of Rock: ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Rocketman’ are pop-music fantasias that never touch the greatness of their subjects

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.

 

 

Tales of Rock: Elton John: I insisted ‘Rocketman’ film be honest about sex, drugs, rock and roll

Music icon Elton John says he insisted that the musical-fantasy biography “Rocketman,” opening Friday, be honest about his life’s sex, drugs and rock and roll.

During the movie’s long gestation, wrote John in an article Sunday for The Observer Magazine of the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, “Some studios wanted to tone down the sex and drugs so the film would get a PG-13 rating. But I just haven’t led a PG-13 rated life. I didn’t want a film packed with drugs and sex, but equally, everyone knows I had quite a lot of both during the ’70s and ’80s, so there didn’t seem to be much point in making a movie that implied that after every gig, I’d quietly gone back to my hotel room with only a glass of warm milk and the Gideon’s Bible for company.”

The film, eventually rated R, stars Taron Egerton as John and Jamie Bell as his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, whose numerous hits together include “Rocket Man,” “Daniel,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Candle in the Wind” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

“[S]ome studios wanted us to lose the fantasy element and make a more straightforward biopic,” Rock & Roll Hall of Famer John continued, “but that was missing the point. Like I said, I lived in my own head a lot as a kid. And when my career took off, it took off in such a way that it almost didn’t seem real to me. I wasn’t an overnight success by any means … But when it happened, it went off like a missile: there’s a moment in ‘Rocketman’ when I’m playing onstage in the Troubadour club in LA and everything in the room starts levitating, me included, and honestly, that’s what it felt like.”

During that tumultuous period, he wrote, “I’d also lost my virginity, to a man — John Reid [played in the film by Richard Madden], who later became my manager — and come out as gay, at least to my friends and family. This all happened in the space of three weeks. To say it was a lot to take in is a terrible understatement.”

 

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Tales of Rock: ELTON JOHN SAYS HE WOULD HAVE BEEN ‘CHEATING PEOPLE’ IF THE SEX SCENE IN ‘ROCKETMAN’ WAS LEFT OUT

The musical biopic stars Taron Egerton as the iconic gay singer

Elton John said he would have been ‘cheating people’ if the sex scene in Rocketman was left out.

The iconic singer’s life has turned into a movie musical Rocketman starring Taron Egerton and has been released in UK cinemas today (May 22).

And early reviews following screenings at Cannes Film Festival said the film is the first major studio film to depict a gay love scene between Egerton and Richard Madden – who plays Elton’s manager John Reid.

And now, Elton said he didn’t want to ‘airbrush’ the sex scene ‘under the carpet and said he was ‘so joyous’.

He said: “If I am telling my story, it has to be honest.

”I was a virgin until then. I was desperate to be loved and desperate to have a tactile relationship.

”When they tear their clothes off in the movie, that was how it happened. It was in San Francisco.

”I’m so glad it’s in there because I am a gay man and I didn’t want to airbrush it under the carpet.

”This is who I am, and I was so joyous. When he is lying in my arms and I’m sitting back with a smile I’m thinking, ‘Ah, I’m normal, I’ve had sex’…

”I’m proud Rocketman is the first major studio film with a gay love sex scene in it. If I’d left it out, I’d have felt I was cheating people.

”If they don’t like it, I understand, but it’s part of who I am. That night was a very, very important part.”

In Attitude’s June issue, Egerton opened up about the sex scene with Madden and said he felt Madden’s penis on his leg.

“I felt Richard’s penis… On my leg,” he tells Attitude. “We shot a scene where we are both naked on a bed and we are rolling around. I don’t really know how much further we could have gone.”

Rocketman is out in cinemas now!

Watch the trailer below:

 

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Tales of Rock: As ‘Rocketman’ Prepares to Take Off, Hollywood Holds Its Breath – Part 2

ImageThe film arrives in theaters on May 31 as perhaps the most ambitious movie of Hollywood’s summer season, a four-month period that typically accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales.CreditDavid Appleby/Paramount Pictures, via Associated Press

Paramount certainly seemed pleased. Publicists for the studio, which has placed last at the domestic box office for the last seven years, even as it found occasional hits like “A Quiet Place,” sent out a news release that said in capital red letters, “We’ve been waiting a long, long time — ‘Rocketman’ blasts off in Cannes!”

Doug Creutz, an analyst at Cowen and Company, expects “Rocketman” to collect roughly $120 million in the United States and Canada and rank as one of the 12 biggest movies of the summer. Sequels and reboots will fill every other slot, Mr. Creutz predicted in a recent report, with one exception. He also has high hopes for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (Sony), a lavish 1969-set drama from Quentin Tarantino and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie.

“Buzz for the film seems pretty solid,” Mr. Creutz said of “Rocketman,” which he described as “a counterprogramming alternative to younger audience-targeted fare.” Also arriving on May 31 is “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (Warner/Legendary) and “Ma,” a Universal-Blumhouse horror movie.

Still, success for “Rocketman” is far from guaranteed.

How much clamor is there for Elton John music? There may be a great deal: Mr. John has spent the last decade performing sold-out shows in Las Vegas and touring the world to similar results. On the other hand, Mr. John has spent the last decade performing. “Bohemian Rhapsody” benefited from pent-up demand for Mercury, who died in 1991 of complications from AIDS.

One of Paramount’s biggest challenges involves the perception of success. If “Rocketman” sells even half the number of tickets as “Bohemian Rhapsody” it will be a runaway success. But try telling that to box office headline writers.There is no way for Paramount to avoid comparisons to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” even though “Rocketman” is a sharper-edged film that has a more auteur sensibility. Mr. Fletcher’s film begins and ends with Mr. John in rehab, where he identifies himself as an alcoholic, with addictions to cocaine and sex.

 

Gay imagery was largely underplayed in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” to the dismay of people eager for Hollywood to become less timid about homosexuality. But the depiction of same-sex relationships in “Rocketman” could limit interest in more conservative parts of the United States. The contemporary romantic comedy “Love, Simon” was a hard sell last year because it ventured a kiss between teenage boys. “Rocketman” is expected to generate enormous ticket sales in countries like England, but the film will not make it past Chinese censors without severe sanitization, something that Mr. John is likely to deem a nonstarter.

“Even if the movie doesn’t make one penny at the box office — which will kill Jim Gianopulos — it is the movie I wanted to make,” Mr. John said from the stage after the Cannes premiere, referring to Paramount’s chairman.

To overcome any box office difficulties, Paramount has thrown all of its weight into marketing the film. Fans can upload photos of themselves to a Paramount website and find out what they would look like in flamboyant Elton John eyewear. (Tagline: “Show the world you were never ordinary.”)

To generate word of mouth, Paramount teamed up with Fandango to offer sneak-peek screenings at 400 theaters on Saturday.

Mr. Gianopulos even likened “Rocketman” to a superhero movie as part of a push for the movie at the most recent CinemaCon, a convention for theater owners. “If musicians were superheroes, Elton John would be Rocketman — capable of escaping the gravity of the ordinary, fear and prejudice,” Mr. Gianopulos said on stage at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where Mr. John performed 450 shows for 1.8 million fans from 2004 to 2018.

Paramount then sent attendees home with sparkly “Rocketman” T-shirts.

 

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Tales of Rock: As ‘Rocketman’ Prepares to Take Off, Hollywood Holds Its Breath – Part 1

Taron Egerton as Elton John in “Rocketman.” How the film performs at the box office will be a measure of his star power.

LOS ANGELES — Multiple movie studios passed on the opportunity to make “Rocketman,” an R-rated musical fantasia about Elton John’s hedonistic breakthrough years. Too gay. Too expensive. Too reliant on an unproven star.

But one film company, the down-on-its-luck Paramount Pictures, saw the audacious project as a chance to prove something to both Hollywood and Wall Street — namely that, to borrow a reference from Sir Elton, it’s still standing.

Now comes the moment of truth.

“Rocketman” will arrive in theaters on May 31 as perhaps the most ambitious movie of Hollywood’s summer season, a four-month period that typically accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales and relies overwhelmingly on franchises. Starring Taron Egerton and costing an estimated $120 million to make and market worldwide, “Rocketman” trails glitter — a million Swarovski crystals adorn the costumes and eyewear — and depicts gay sex, a first for a major studio. Mr. Egerton, 29, known for the “Kingsman” action comedies, did all of his own singing, reinterpreting classics like “The Bitch Is Back.” There is intricate choreography (one stylized scene finds an entire London neighborhood dancing in formation) and an orgy musical number set to “Bennie and the Jets.”

Depending on its box office performance, “Rocketman” could have wide ripple effects. Paramount has delivered nine consecutive quarters of improved financial results for Viacom, its corporate owner, but a turnaround is still tenuous. A big hit — and one that’s not a sequel, spinoff or reboot, at that — would provide a morale boost and send an important message to Hollywood’s creative community and Viacom investors: that even in the age of Netflix and Marvel, Paramount can deliver.

 

The stakes are also high for Mr. Egerton. His previous movie, Lionsgate’s big-budget “Robin Hood,” was a critical and commercial bomb. If this one fizzles, Mr. Egerton’s leading man opportunities may vanish. Dexter Fletcher, who directed “Rocketman,” is also hoping for a career-making moment. Mr. Fletcher, who also acts, has never had a breakout success as a filmmaker, although he earned points in Hollywood for finishing “Bohemian Rhapsody” after the credited director, Bryan Singer, was fired.

In some ways, almost every major studio has something riding on “Rocketman.” Movies built around song catalogs have become white hot in Hollywood. Baz Luhrmann is working on an Elvis Presley movie for Warner Bros. Sony recently bought the rights to “Once Upon a One More Time,” described as a fairy tale fueled by Britney Spears songs. Universal is developing a Madonna biopic called “Blond Ambition.” Celine Dion, David Bowie and Judy Garland films are on the way from smaller studios.

Turnout for “Rocketman” could either heat up or cool down studio interest. Right now, film executives are dreaming of finding another “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The Queen bio-musical collected a jaw-dropping $908 million worldwide last year and won four Academy Awards, including one for Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.

“It will be interesting to see how broad the ‘Rocketman’ audience will be — whether it bridges the gaps,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, which tracks box office data.

Heterosexual men are typically the hardest audience for musicals to reach. “Bohemian Rhapsody” overcame that hurdle, but no one is exactly sure why. Some longtime movie marketers point out that Queen anthems like “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” are sporting event mainstays. “Or it could be that these movies are hitting on multiple levels: biopic, jukebox musical, an anchor performance, a little documentary even,” Mr. Dergarabedian said.

The film arrives in theaters on May 31 as perhaps the most ambitious movie of Hollywood’s summer season, a four-month period that typically accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales.CreditDavid Appleby/Paramount Pictures, via Associated Press

 

 

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