Welcome to the 2019 CIRCUIT CONSIDERATIONS series. Highlighting the very best in film, acting, and technical achievements for the past 12 months that awards voters may need help remembering. Each day a different writer will make their plea for a specific film in a respective category. If you miss one, click the tag “Circuit Considerations 2019,” and if you have some suggestions, include them in the comments below!
For those playing musical biopic bingo, “Rocketman” hits almost all of the familiar tropes and cliches of the genre. Though the story isn’t new, the framing makes the film fresher than others in the genre. The editing work of Chris Dickens takes “Rocketman” from musical biopic to jukebox musical. That distinction is key to the film’s success. The basic story beats rely on lazy genre cliches. Yet, the fantastic musical sequences bring flamboyant energy that propels the entire narrative. Beneath the fun is Elton John’s (Taron Egerton) constant desire to be loved and the inherent tension queer people face when seeking approval from a society that wants them to be different.
We breeze past the canned dialogue sequences in favor of flashier and more emotionally involved musical sequences. “Honky Cat” remains my personal favorite sequence in the film primarily because of the old fashioned, glitzy fantasy on display. John Reid (Richard Madden) introduces Elton to a life of excess and luxury. This fantastically assembled montage takes us on a shopping spree and binge of debauchery with the two men. For just a moment, we forget about the perils of Elton’s actions and instead feel a euphoric release in going along with the fun song. Aside from being entertaining, it allows us to empathize why Elton turned to both John and drugs/alcohol/shoe-shopping to find happiness.
On the flip side, the titular song, “Rocketman” shows how drugs can prop up a broken Elton, but can’t fill the loneliness in his heart. As he sinks to the bottom of his pool during a bender, Elton is greeted with a vision of his younger self. As he’s carried out on a gurney, he moves straight from an ambulance to backstage at a concert venue. These quick edits demonstrate how quickly Elton is propped back up after a serious health scare. While on stage performing the song, Elton shoots up in the sky, his legs like rockets blasting him up. Even the skies aren’t an escape. They’re merely another mode of transportation on an endless tour that’s eating him up. His rocket ascension just puts him on a plane to another location. No matter how far he goes, his self-loathing and addict tendencies follow.
Elton’s story of self-acceptance is further externalized in his journey to sobriety. From a story perspective, the AA framing device feels too expected and a bit clunky. However, the film’s editing wisely uses it mostly as an introduction and keeps our trips to the church basement sparingly. Instead, fast editing relies on the songs to propel the story forward and move us further and further in time. “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” acts as a high octane crowd-pleaser, a dance showcase and as a perfect bridge between young Elton and adult Elton in the first act of the film.
The movie isn’t all about quick cuts and frantic transitions. Dickens gives other key songs moments to breathe, especially as Elton takes in his first few steps to global fame. Elton’s first performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles stands as one of the best scenes in the film. He walks onto the stage as a nobody trying to make a start in a new country. From the opening bars of “Crocodile Rock,” Elton grabs the audience’s attention. This number expertly and visually dramatizes the power a connection between a singer and his audience can be. Once Elton does his signature move where he jumps while playing the piano, the audience levitates in the air. Dickens lets us linger on the bodies floating in midair, as Elton gets to delight in the specific moment he becomes a star. It’s a fantastic breather in a quick movie.
Similarly, “Tiny Dancer,” slows the movie down so Elton can express his longing for longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). While it’s great to see Taron Egerton swoon against a crisp evening fire, Dickens frequently cuts to Elton’s POV. We watch Bernie leave with a woman at the party, watching him walk away. Our heart drops with Elton as we experience and identify with his story of unrequited love.
Last year, “Bohemian Rhapsody” won the Oscar for Film Editing. I cannot recall one cut or sequence that further dramatizes the themes of that film. Instead, they all cover up the behind-the-scenes production woes with clear scotch tape. One can easily see the seams of how the movie very nearly seemed lost. Conversely, “Rocketman” feels like a complete work of art. Every musical sequence moves the plot further and communicates Elton’s desire for love, need for emotional refuge and exhaustion in the face of intense pressure and fame.