The good news is that Andra Day is a surefire star. In her debut performance, the singer makes a bold impression as Billie Holiday, with her raspy voice, sterling stage presence, and powerful singing. Day was nominated for an Academy Award, just as Dianna Ross was for her own film debut, also playing Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. The highlight of this movie is a tight close-up of Day singing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching protest song, written by a Jewish schoolteacher, a song that incensed the U.S. government and essentially began the woe-begotten War on Drugs with a racist task force targeting Holiday as their first victim to make an example of. The moment is filled with rising emotions and barely held restraint and the sheer power of Day’s performance communicates the danger and anger of this politically-charged song that earned such controversy. However, the rest of the movie is a bit of an unholy mess, as director Lee Daniels (Precious) takes his signature campy, over-the-top style and cannot say no to any creative decision in his mind. I don’t know what’s harder to grasp, the clashing tones or timelines, as the movie literally and figuratively jumps all over the place, at one instant having Holiday on top of the world, and another being beaten by a parade of one-dimensional and nearly indistinguishable abusive men, to waltzing through heroin hallucinations, and cuddling close with an FBI informant (Trevante Rhodes) who is definitely a fictional character. Like the recent Judas and the Black Messiah, we divest time from the star to the men who betray her, but none of these louts and schemers are worth that precious time. It becomes an uncomfortable misery montage as we watch Holiday get abused, shoot up, cry, get harassed by the police, and repeat endlessly for 130 minutes. I don’t know if maybe Daniels was trying to make me feel like I was on drugs while watching but the antic, unfocused, and careening narrative and energy levels certainly made me feel dizzy and nauseated. An then there are ridiculous moments where I just wanted to laugh, like the backroom of racist government agents saying lines like, “This jazz music is the devil’s work. That’s why this Holiday woman has to be stopped.” This is based on a chapter of a book about the early War on Drugs, not Holiday’s biography, and it feels very much like her own identity and significance is being strung along just to be a martyr for the evils of government persecution. The movie paints her chiefly as a victim and then seems to glorify in victimizing her, and it all feels so garish and ghoulish and misguided. Billie Holiday deserves an amazing movie but she’ll just have to settle for an amazing performance in an otherwise melodramatic mess of a movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
In 2012, after the found footage superhero movie Chronicle became a surprise smash, director Josh Trank was at the top of Hollywood’s hot new director list. Within three years, he was a pariah. The production behind 2015’s Fantastic Four was so troubled and fraught with reshoots, creative clashes, and secret edits that Trank was labeled as a malcontent who couldn’t be trusted with the big tentpoles. He was unceremoniously dumped by Star Wars and seemed to become the latest casualty of an industry that eats its own promising wunderkinds. I’d highly advise people read a very illuminating in-depth article from Polygon on Trank’s troubles and triumphs, including his insights on where Fantastic Four went awry. Trank spent years honing his next script, an Al Capone biopic of his late years, and waiting for star Tom Hardy to be available. Some critics have called Trank’s comeback movie a self-indulgent, surreal, campy mess, and indeed while I was watching I had visions of Mommie Dearest. However, that wasn’t a bad thing, at least for me. I cannot call Capone an unqualified success but I appreciated the bizarre lengths Trank goes to make a biopic that mocks and tears away the mystique of its macho idol.
Capone (Hardy), or “Fonze” as he’s referred to primarily, has been released from his prison sentence for tax evasion and living the rest of his days on his Florida estate. He’s suffering dementia from the effects of neurosyphilis, a condition he contracted as a teenager. His wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini), tries her best to keep him from harming himself or others. The F.B.I. is still listening, still watching, and newspaper reporters are still hiding along the bushes. Capone struggles to keep his mind from being completely lost but will lose, dying at age 47.
First off, I think Trank’s initial creative approach is a genius way to explore a biographical film, running through the major points of a subject’s life in a hallucinatory, non-linear fashion that mixes fantasy and reality. From that standpoint alone, Capone is never boring because it can quite literally go anywhere as Capone retreats further and further into his fraying mind. That’s such a visually stimulating way of telling a story while also presenting a chaotic impression of a character’s perception, locking us into an empathetic experience with an unreliable guidepost. I think that alone makes Capone worthwhile, as does Hardy’s go-for-broke performance (more on that later). It’s a weird fever dream of a movie, constantly shifting between past and present, fantasy and reality, and I think this perspective adds much to the film’s appeal and ambition. One second the man is sitting down with FBI agents and the next he’s wandering a ballroom to go onstage with Louis Armstrong for a New Year’s Eve duet. It gets pretty crazy and that’s good.
I was wondering if Trank would glorify his title subject. I only had to wait for the first twenty minutes where Al Capone literally craps himself twice for my answer. This is not Capone at the height of his fearsome power where he ruled the Chicago ganglands; this is a decrepit, doddering middle-aged man, equally helpless and reckless, unable or unwilling to even control his bowels. He is rotten from the inside out, a vile human being whose own filth is leaking out to smother him. Gangster cinema has often glamorized the mafia and criminals as unorthodox folk heroes, like in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and the more recent Public Enemies in 2009. So, with all of that said, I enjoyed that Trank took a legendary figure of the criminal underworld and totally undercut his machismo power. He strips away the romantic notions of the man’s life. This isn’t the man on the pulpy radio dramas, this is a guy who craps the bed. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman got plenty of acclaim for spending its final half-hour showing where a lifetime of crime leads its elderly protagonist, a sad, lonely life without any lasting personal benefit. Trank takes that much-heralded final half-hour and turns it into an entire 100-minute movie. I wish more movies would do this to deserving subjects.
The biggest draw of the film is Hardy (Venom, The Revenant) who never met a film role he couldn’t grumble, mumble, growl, or unleash a funny voice for. To say he is committed does not to do the man justice. He is not only chewing scenery; he is rapidly inhaling it. He is playing to the cheap seats with this role, bloodshot eyes bulging out of his head with thousand-yard stares of confusion and paranoia. He’s barely intelligible at times, and that’s before he has a stroke that further impairs his ability to communicate. He can also be hard to recognize under layers of pock-faced makeup. The acting-with-a-capital-A style is so enthralling but perhaps not for the exact intended reasons. It’s fascinating to watch a highly respected, Academy Award-nominated actor just indulge every over-the-top impulse and tic, where each small decision feels like generating the question, “Really, you went with that choice?” The batty performance brought to mind Faye Dunaway’s breathtaking performance in 1981’s so-bad-it’s-good Mommie Dearest as Joan Crawford (she thought she was going to in awards for that performance!). It’s a level of camp with no earthly reservation, and it’s rare to see from such a famous actor, and I was spellbound. If you enjoyed Mommie Dearest for its unintentional camp hilarity, then Capone might be just for you.
While at turns confounding and fascinating, Capone falls short when it comes to examining the inner life of its title character. I assumed with the conceit of losing touch with reality that Capone would be experiencing some reckoning over his past misdeeds, and this happens to a very mild, opaque degree. There are some supporting characters that turn out to be, surprise, ghosts that Capone had killed in his past. But they stop there, failing to provide an opportunity for Capone to feel remorse and they don’t even push him on being guilty. You would think a man with a sizeable list of dead people he’s responsible for would be haunted by more ghosts from the past, forcing him to reconcile his idea of himself with his tortured deeds. Capone is also seeing images of a young boy that is meant to represent his poor youthful upbringing, but he doesn’t interact with this past representation other than look uncomfortable in his presence. The movie desperately needed more introspection with this man examining his sins and legacy and validations. A bad man coming to terms with the end and what it means has great dramatic potential. A bad man who bumbles around his luxurious home, sees some ghosts, and continues bumbling has less so. That’s where Trank’s screenplay really falters because it doesn’t push harder. Capone is too caught up in upending the image of Al Capone rather than digging deeper into the man himself and his inherent end-of-life drama.
The supporting characters also do little to offer alternative sides to better know Capone. His long-suffering wife is nicely played by Cardellini (Green Book), brought to tears watching her strong man waste away, calling her an angel one minute and forgetting her face the next, but we don’t learn more about the central figure through her. He started poor. Got power. Now he’s incompetent (and incontinent). That’s it. There’s room for more here than a man physically and mentally falling apart. What about the other people in his life? What about plans for succession from those who spent their lives in his service? There’s even a storyline of a lovechild trying to get in contact with him and the movie miraculously does nothing with this abandoned son to add further dimension and insight.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t laughing throughout Capone, though I think Trank is intending some degree of mockery with his biopic that plumbs the depths of the strange and grotesque. There’s a guy who gets stabbed in the neck maybe 50 literal times. There’s Capone shooting alligators, convinced they’re conspiring to munch on his testicles. There’s Capone applauding and singing along to The Wizard of Oz and arguing for the sake of the Cowardly Lion. There’s an ongoing subplot about different supporting characters trying to somehow sift the location of Capone’s hidden millions from his broken mind like a treasure hunt. There’s an entire sequence where Capone, with carrot-as-cigar in mouth, marches around firing a golden tommy gun while his saggy adult diaper droops around his waistline. In short, there’s more than enough material here to enjoy on a strictly ridiculous, pulpy, heightened to the point of breaking campy variety. Hardy is fully unrestrained, for better and worse, but he’s always watchable, as I would say of the film itself. Even if it feels ultimately superficial and underdeveloped, Trank’s Capone is a mess of bad taste about a bad man going through some bad times and it just might be the good kind of bad.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Honey Boy may be one of the most fascinating movies before you even watch a single second. It’s begging for an intensely ambitious psychological analysis as Shia LaBeouf lays bare his soul in an act of art as therapeutic device. He wrote the screenplay of a very autobiographical tale of a young child actor (nick-named “Honey Boy” by his father) hitting new levels of fame and his abrasive, abusive, and very controlling father, an alcoholic entertainer that relishes his son’s growing success and also resents his accomplishments. That alone would have made Honey Boy an interesting film experience, but LaBeouf goes the extra mile, as he does, and he literally plays the father character, putting him in the position of bringing to life the hurtful authority figure and thinking from his skewed perspective. It makes every moment LaBeouf is onscreen deeply fascinating and deserving of a deep dive to unpack the layers of personal meaning for the man. LaBeouf is also startling and terrific as the self-destructive and self-determined father, a man who finds slights in the slightest but can also be very encouraging of his son’s dreams. Seriously, every moment he is onscreen is suffused with layers of artistic meaning for what it represents in the story, its relationship to LaBeouf the person, and what LaBeouf the son is discovering while playing his father. It becomes a cathartic exercise that also could prove to be literal empathy. The problem with Honey Boy is that it feels more like that dramatic exercise than an actual story; the secondary storyline with the adult protagonist, played by Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), hardly provides much significance. He’s going through rehab and dealing with his unresolved feelings and addictions, but it’s more a framing device than a story itself or a worthwhile contrast to provide helpful details. The movie would just have been fine without it. However, there isn’t really a development of a plot as there is a general repetition of the relationship, namely the complicated and fractious father/son relationship. We spend a lot of time at this motel. We spend a lot of time with father speaking to son. I think a clear majority of the lines are spoken by LaBeouf. It’s always fascinating, with the exception of a misfire of a young romance that seems to float by more on yearning, but after a while I started to notice it felt like we were getting more of the same. We weren’t generating new insights into the characters and how they might change. Is this movie an act of forgiving his father or understanding him? I don’t know, but I’d happily debate Honey Boy with a pal over a beer for the next hour. It’s an inherently intriguing movie loaded with subtext that has its own subtext, a touch of the surreal from documentary filmmaker Alma Har’el, and powerful acting from LaBeouf. It can also feel like more of the same after the first hour. It’s a movie you need to see but it’s ultimately more LaBeouf opening up his intensive therapy role-play than it is a fully-formed movie. James Franco must watch this movie and weep.
Nate’s Grade: B
In 2018, Netflix crashed through Oscar biases with Alfonso Cuaron’s personal epic Roma and this year they have their sights set on even bigger prizes. The streaming service has built an empire of original content (and debt) and put up the $150 million budget for Martin Scorsese’s decades-spanning crime drama, The Irishman. It’s a fitting reunion for Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Scorsese, and then to add Al Pacino on top, well it all makes for one supremely entertaining and occasionally striking movie experience. However, I think some critics are getting a bit too carried away with their plaudits. While entertaining throughout its mammoth 3.5 hours, this is much more Casino than Goodfellas.
We follow the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Philadelphia-based truck driver who rose to be a Teamster union rep and, reportedly, a prolific hired gun for the local mob, headed by Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Sheeran is tasked with helping Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) with his business, which helps the larger contingent of organized crime that used the Teamsters multi-million-dollar pension as their own slush fund to pay for projects and schemes. After he loses his leadership position, Hoffa begins to think of himself on the same level as the tough guys and just as protected. Sheeran tries to turn his friend back from the self-destructive path he seems destined for, and ultimately, it’s Frank Sheeran who says he pulled the trigger killing Hoffa (is this a spoiler?).
There are moments that just sing in this movie, buoyed by a wonderful film alchemy of the actors, the storytelling, the skill of Scorsese and his longtime collaborators like editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and it can feel exhilarating. There’s a rich world of day-to-day detail from the character interactions and mob politics, and once Hoffa comes onscreen the movie becomes something more and better. It’s just as much Jimmy Hoffa’s movie as it is Frank Sheeran’s. Here is a live-wire character bursting with unpredictability, later to his great deficit, and who pushes the other characters around in a way that creates instant tension and realignment. Considering the selling point of the movie is its perspective from the claimed killer of Hoffa, it only makes sense that these moments are allowed the most attention. Hoffa sees himself as a champion of the little guy, as an ideologue trying to make life better, never mind his own extravagance, ego, and inability to let go of grievances. Hoffa was the head of the Teamsters union for twenty years and was a well-known public figure, somebody people like Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) could idolize unlike her father and his other cohorts she despised. He’s a larger-than-life figure and those theatrics find a perfect match with Pacino and his bombastic nature. It’s no wonder he steals the movie. Pacino is terrific and has the clearest arc of any character onscreen, a meaty role that gives Pacino new life. I predict he’s the front-runner for supporting Oscar gold. I was transfixed by the amount of details that Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zallian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) imbue in every scene, propelled by Frank’s narration and a dark sense of humor. It’s very easy to get immersed in this criminal underworld and its many machinations, which provides a steady stream of information points to tantalize. If one scene isn’t working, just give the movie a few minutes and another avenue might open to prove newly fascinating. It makes a difference on its running time, making 3.5 hours feel more mercifully like 2.5 hours. Of course, once it’s released onto Netflix, I feel like its size and scope will become less unwieldy for viewers.
Because of that surfeit of detail, I think The Irishman would have better benefited from being adapted into a miniseries than as a single movie that happens to be 15 minutes longer than Titanic. The finished film feels rather episodic, like three movies attached into one; the introduction into a life of crime and rising in the mob, the friendship and fall of Hoffa, and the finale as an old man. All of these segments have genuine interest and compelling drama but I think they would have been even more compelling with a larger narrative canvas to play out upon. That way each episode could have its own beginning/middle/end and play its part adding to the larger whole, which is essentially what scenes should be doing anyway for a story. The problem is that The Irishman gets a little lost in its own minutia in the middle and the plot stalls. It feels a little too taken with itself. It feels like we’re experiencing the same information just in more settings. How many moments do we need to show Hoffa pushing away sound advice, making enemies of allies, and dooming himself? Admittedly, the Hoffa portion of the movie is the most compelling, and longest, segment of the movie. It’s the best because of Pacino’s spotlight and from the personal involvement in Sheeran, pushing his loyalties to the test when he genuinely grows close to Hoffa and realizes he’ll be the one that has to eliminate his friend. It’s the most dramatic and harrowing and most interesting part of the movie (and no, not the somber final 30 minutes). I think it would have had even more punch over the course of multiple episodes of material and momentum. By going the miniseries route, the film could have also stripped its second and entirely unnecessary framing device, having the men drive their wives across the Midwest to attend Bill Bufalino’s (Ray Romano) wedding. The short scenes fail to lead to any import until it’s revealed late what also happened during this fateful weekend. It’s a long wait to justify its placement, and even after that it doesn’t feel like the occasional road trip updates were worthwhile.
Much has been made from several dazzled film critics and online pundits about the movie’s concluding half hour, which follows the “after” of a mafioso’s life. We got a taste of this in the conclusion of Goodfellas after Henry Hill and family were relocated to schlubby mundanity through witness protection, implying the boring life that awaited, but The Irishman dedicates its conclusion to demystifying these mob men. Few of them live to old age, so already Sheeran is the exception (he died at age 83 in 2003) but he’s also incapable of introspection. That gives the final half hour a change of pace and an air of contemplation but it’s stagnated. Frank’s family wants nothing to do with him, everyone from his earlier life has passed away, and he shows little regret for his life’s actions, shocking a priest, his only regular visitor. I suppose one could surmise the self-deluded and sad existence of this man who refuses to accept accountability, but I found this final thirty minutes to be interesting, yes, but far from revelatory. I think critics are doing a fair amount of projection by searching for some kind of tidy, accumulative meaning, as if Scorsese is providing some wise, decades-earned statement on his own famed works highlighting the flashy lives of very bad people doing very bad things. People are a little too desperate for The Irishman to provide that neat hook, that definitive statement, and it’s just not there. It may have been too “movie land convenient” but I was begging for a final confrontation from Peggy.
The de-aging CGI is the source of much of the film’s gargantuan budget, which was why studios balked before Netflix welcomed Scorsese with eager arms. The first display of the de-aging effect is jarring and jarringly bad. We see Pesci and De Niro as 40-year-old men and it’s initially horrifying. The effect looks wrong, like somebody drew over their faces to provide some degree of cell-shaded dimension (think of the video game Borderlands). There are also elements that will just never look right, namely the elasticity of the skin, which looks overly smooth and polished, reminding me of the doll faces of the stop-motion film, Anomalisa. It gets better from there. Interiors and lower-light environments are better at masking the unreality. After a while you simply grow accustomed to it and the characters are aging anyway, which means the effect is rarely used after the first half of The Irishman. It’s impressive at parts but even with the digital facelift, these are still 70-year-old men moving their 70-year-old bodies with new shiny faces. There’s a moment when a younger Sheeran beats and stomps on a grocer and it reminded me of professional wrestling with the stiff movements of one participant followed by the extravagant physical overreaction of the recipient. Captain Marvel is still the champ at actor de-aging.
There’s also the fairly strong possibility that Sheeran made all of this up. Well into his twilight years, he reportedly recounted his amazing tale to a medical malpractice lawyer before he died, and that became the 2003 book, I Heard You Paint Houses. An August 2019 article by Slate.com writer Bill Tonelli (“The Lies of the Irishman”) gives a pretty thorough rundown of the facts of the case, which align in one direction. All of the FBI agents during Sheeran’s time, as well as the local officials, and surviving criminal actors, all come to the same conclusion that Sheeran has grossly overstated his role in mob matters and outright fabricated his most sensational claims. According to Tonelli: “Most amazingly, Sheeran did all that without ever being arrested, charged, or even suspected of those crimes by any law enforcement agency, even though officials were presumably watching him for most of his adult life. To call him the Forrest Gump of organized crime scarcely does him justice. In all the history of the mafia in America or anywhere else, really, nobody even comes close.” It does seem far-fetched, but the next question is whether the enjoyment of the movie matters at all if the story it’s based upon is ninety-nine percent hooey? While I think the impact of the movie is slightly blunted with a fictional account, it plays larger into a self-aggrandizing theme and the first framing device of the movie, having Sheeran narrate his life experiences as an old man, left to rot in a nursing home. Perhaps he’s exaggerating to make himself feel more important and grant himself something of a legacy that is denied to him by a lifetime of self-serving choices that have left him abandoned by family. In this regard, there’s a strange meta-textual level that even helps support the larger tragedy and loneliness of these men, in case you needed it underlined.
There’s a delightful feeling of getting the gang back together for Scorsese’s massive, ambitious, and thrilling return to the world of gangster cinema. There are so many characters that it can be hard to keep things straight as we zip through decades, de-aging, framing devices, Boardwalk Empire supporting actors, prison time, nursing homes, and Jim Norton as a young Don Rickles. I wish the story had been parlayed into an epic miniseries rather than a movie. The finished film is certainly long and imposing but also compelling and entertaining. The personalities don’t have quite the pop as Pacino, a rollicking screen presence relishing the spotlight, but the rock star bravado has been replaced with a somber reality of self-cultivated isolation. Pesci is terrific in what might be his most nuanced, insular, and quiet role of his career. I wish he would continue acting. De Niro is suitably gruff and has a few scenes of trying to hold back a cascade of emotions, but he’s more our impassive face into a world of crime and vengeance. I don’t think the final conclusion has the power that others have claimed and is a result of projection. The Irishman is an entertaining deep dive that I only wish could have gone even deeper.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The real reason to watch Judy is the triumphant, blazing return of Renee Zellweger as the talent we’ve known her to be as an actress. She’s faded from the spotlight over the last decade, gotten a controversial face lift, and spent over a year prepping to play the role of the legendary Judy Garland during a 1969 British tour, what would prove to be the last months of her life. Zellweger disappears into the character, astonishingly recreating the mannerisms, posture, and vocal cadences of the famous Old Hollywood Wizard of Oz star. She’s tremendous and while clearly troubled and weathered, the film takes a remarkably sympathetic approach to its subject. Garland’s present-day alcoholism, pill popping, and narcissism can trace their roots to her young days as a teenage studio star where the powers that be, namely studio honcho Louis B. Mayer, would bully her, harass her, and molest her. The exploitation mechanisms of Old Hollywood made me wish that Judy was a more unconventional biopic, blending the past and present into a daring, metaphorical journey over the rainbow of a woman in the spotlight her entire life. Instead, we’re watching Garland stumble onto the stage, struggle to sleep and perform, and live a sad existence where she can be reminded, just every so often, the impact she can have, like a sweet impromptu home visit with a gay couple that is a miracle of tiny kindnesses. There’s not much plot here as the film, too, stumbles and shambles to its finale, with very little attention given to the supporting characters. Her whirlwind romance with a younger man (Finn Wittrock) fails to ignite much insight, and he’s named Mickey, so I was confusing him as an adult Mickey Rooney, who appears onscreen in flashbacks and was Judy’s first love (she asked if they were dating and Rooney said he would have to check with Mayer — every woman’s dream). Watching the movie made me feel like there was a stronger version of this story begging to be told. Regardless, Judy is a well made if conventional biopic with a real razzle-dazzle performance from Zellweger, who stunned me with her final singing number and the longing, remorseful, melancholy emotions she was able to dredge. Judy will be best remembered for her performance alone and that’s perfectly right.
Nate’s Grade: B
It seems like Bohemian Rhapsody was a trial run for actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. He had previously directed an inspirational sports movie (2015’s Eddie the Eagle) amongst other smaller films but he really came to attention when he filled in for the final weeks of Rhapsody after the original director Bryan Singer was removed. Fletcher helped steer the movie to its finish, and what a finish it had, collecting $700 million worldwide and four Oscars. Now Fletcher is a lone credited director of another musical biopic, Rocketman, chronicling the highs and lows of Elton John’s personal and professional career. Does it soar?
Elton John (Taron Egerton), nee Reggie Dwight, struts into rehab and tells his life story, from his humble days in England with distant, unsupportive parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh), meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and forming an instant connection, signing a record deal and traveling to America, blowing up immediately in popularity, his on-again-off-again relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and all the drugs, parties, and excesses of rock and roll that Elton turned to in order to feel better about his own crippling loneliness.
I wish more musician biopics took the approach of Rocketman, blending real-life with glitzy, dreamy fantasy sequences to create a musical fantasia. It just makes running through the typical tropes of biopics that much more entertaining. I appreciate the fluid nature of being able to dip into the fantastical at a moment’s notice, opening to a world of dance and delights, which keeps things lively and serves as a better integration of the artist’s songs. Take for instance last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed the formation of some of Queen’s most famous songs in comically abbreviated, almost impossibly easy creative sessions. They go from clapping to cutting away to a completed “We Will Rock You.” That movie became a series of sequences demonstrating how the band made its songs. With Rocketman, the songs are more designed as vehicles to the emotional journey of Elton John. When he thinks back to his childhood, we blast “The Bitch is Back,” and when he’s talking about his first performance experiences in his town’s pubs, we get “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” When Elton’s family is at a breaking point, each member sings a section of “I Want Love.” When Elton feels alone in a giant party, and nursing his unrequited feelings for his writing partner, he warbles “Tiny Dancer.” When he’s caught up in his attraction to his manager, they duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” By going this route, the filmmakers have opened their movie to more narrative and emotional potential.
The steps into fantasy also communicate Elton’s emotional state, especially as he starts spiraling into more drugs and loneliness. His elation translates into feeling like he and the audience are floating on air in one scene. His sense of succumbing to addictions and urges is demonstrating by a darker rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” where he crowd surfs into a sweaty orgy of flesh, people pulling at him, wanton desires obscuring anything else. It also plays into Elton’s fraying mental state. After a fantasy number, he says, “Where am I?” We too don’t know where he is. We too don’t know how much time has passed. It’s a clever conceit to get the audience to feel the protagonist’s distaff confusion about what is real and what is drug-addled. This approach also allows for some obvious visual metaphors that seem more palatable. When Elton literally hugs the child version of himself, and thus is allowing himself to finally be loved by himself, in a literal physical act, you mostly buy into it as catharsis because of the flights of fancy.
The use of songs comes into play in three shapes: 1) breaking out into song as a fantasy sequence meant to communicate the inner emotional state of the characters, 2) Elton or others performing songs as diagetic musical performances happening in real life, and 3) the musical score built upon other Elton John tracks. It pretty much means the film is wall-to-wall Elton John, which works especially well considering it is the man’s biopic, but it also creates a world of sound that belongs to this man. Even the musical score adopts his signature tunes, which provides a nice undercurrent since he is telling his own story, so why wouldn’t he rely upon his own music score to provide that extra oomph?
There is a notable downside to the interwoven fantasy angle and that’s instilling a sense of added skepticism with the audience. Every biopic is going to make fictional inventions for the sake of storytelling, be it combing characters, making the internal external, or reordering scenes for maximum drama. It’s when a biopic goes overboard with the deviations from the truth that it can alienate the audience (though this didn’t bother the $700 million gross for Rhapsody). By Rocketman choosing to amp its fantasy elements, this is going to test the believability of scenes. I’m not talking about whether or not the crowd at L.A.’s Troubadour actually floated for Elton’s first U.S. live performance. Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But it calls into question moments like Elton and Bernie Taupin meeting by coincidence, Elton storming off from Madison Square Garden straight to rehab, and in particular his relationship with his parents. There’s a phone call where an adult Elton comes out to his mother, and she responds that she always knew her son was gay. It’s at this moment where the audience may be thinking, “Oh, that’s a sweet little moment to bring out her humanity.” Then in the next breath she castigates him for “choosing” a lifestyle that will condemn him to never knowing love. Yikes. It’s such an outlandish statement that I questioned whether this scene actually happened or was dramatic license to further sock it to Elton (apparently Howard had the same concern and it’s legit). The downside of asking an audience to accept the unbelievable additions is that they may be in search of them too.
The movie hinges upon its star and Egerton delivers. He previously sang Elton John (Sing) and previously saved the real Elton John (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so it seems like his career has been destined for this role. Egerton is great at capturing the magnetic presence Elton had as a performer. He’s sprightly, larger than life, and fully inhabits the manic stage presence that became a force to reckon with. He also does a great job of communicating the insecurities, doubts, and yearning of a person who has been fighting for acceptance and affection and feels he is incapable of either. Being in the closet is only one aspect to Elton’s self-loathing (he did come out as bisexual in 1973). The character’s biggest emotional hurdle is loving himself, which might sound corny but is given genuine pathos by Egerton, who rages for that fleeting feeling. Egerton has been a charismatic performer from the first moment I saw him, and he feels like a natural fit for this role, ably handling all his own singing to boot. Not even Oscar-winner Rami Malek did that.
The other actors do fine with their smaller roles. The problem is that the supporting cast is kept in tidy boxes of one-note requirements. Taupin is supportive. Reid is manipulative. Sheila is self-absorbed. Stanley is detached and non-approving. Each serves a very distinct purpose, and their underwritten natures would be more of a hindrance if the film weren’t entirely predicated upon Elton John’s personal experiences and interpretations of those events. I will say I was surprised that Sheila was played by Howard (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). I kept thinking to myself, “I need to look up this actress.” I didn’t recognize her with the weight gain and, later, the dodgy older age makeup.
With all these wild visuals and extravagant consumes, the strangest thing to me about this whole movie is the role of Elton’s primary lover and manager, John Reid. This person makes another appearance in another musical biopic — Bohemian Rhapsody. This same character was played by Aiden Gillan (Game of Thrones) and he got Queen to new heights before seeming to glom onto Freddie Mercury and convince him to leave the band for a solo venture. He’s portrayed as a conniving villain in Rhapsody, and he’s portrayed as another conniving user in Rocketman, and two different actors who were both on Game of Thrones play both versions. Where’s this guy’s biopic?
Fletcher has found a clever and playful approach that accentuates his story and provides insights into a clever and playful musician. I was routinely smiling throughout Rocketman, which knowingly takes elements that would be campy and corny and says, “So what?” It’s also an R-rated movie that doesn’t shy away from John’s sexuality in a safe manner, at least “safe” for a Hollywood studio film aimed at mass appeal. I enjoyed myself throughout Rocketman as it floated by on its sense of whimsy and heartache, anchored beautifully by Egerton, a compelling and charismatic young lead who gives it his all. Rocketman is what more movie biopics should aspire to be like, sequins and everything.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Given the high-profile treatment of a popular documentary and an awards-bait caliber feature, you’d be forgiven for thinking that people either thought justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was due for recognition or was about to die. On the Basis of Sex takes more than a few nods from 2012’s Lincoln, showcasing its subject trying to pass key reforms/legislation as a means of better insight into his or her lasting legacy. To that end the film is a success. It’s an intelligent legal procedural taking time to find judicial footholds, craft compelling arguments, and the back-and-forth challenges of overturning hundreds of years of precedent that viewed women as essentially lesser. If you enjoy rhetorical debates on legal minutia, this might be the movie for you. However, if you wanted to get a better understanding of Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) the person, then you’re out of luck. She’s more or less the vessel for social justice and the film keeps her more as a lionized symbol for change than as a person. Her frustrations, such as being denied the same opportunities as men, are meant to serve as a reminder of the frustrations of the many. There are a handful of scenes with dismissive, doddering middle-aged men that feel too stagy, and yet I’m sure that these same curt comments and patronizing behaviors were a daily affair (and still are). Jones doesn’t feel like she has a full grasp on the character beyond as symbol (her Brooklyn accent is a bit slippery as well). You also get to process the reality of Ginsburg as a sexual being as she initiates PG-13 sex with her supportive husband (Armie Hammer). It’s kind of like thinking about your parents having sex. On the Basis of Sex feels a bit, ironically enough, too old-fashioned. It’s got dramatic courtroom showdowns, including an eleventh hour speech, and all the old Oscar bait tropes we’d expect from this sort of movie. It plays to every expectation of its audience. Beyond learning about the legal arguments, there’s nothing new or insightful here. Stick with the RBG documentary and hear the same stories from the real deal herself.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Biopics are trickier than they appear because how best can you distill the essence, and significance, of a person into two hours? We’ve edged away from the standard cradle-to-grave biopics more in favor of stories that hinge on monumental moments in a person’s life, meant to encapsulate their life both in micro and macro. Bohemian Rhapsody favors the former approach, which causes the movie to feel like it’s rushing through the cornerstones of Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s life. Even at over two hours, the movie feels like it has little time for things, often jumping into polished, well-edited montages of time progression. The creative birth of many of the band’s hits are treated as absurdly easy formations, going from a clap of hands and stomp of feet to “We Will Rock you,” or a bass line to “Another One Bites the Dust.” It’s like the movie is checking boxes for a biopic with an anxious eye toward the clock. Mercury’s homosexuality (he comes out as bisexual to his long-time girlfriend who corrects him and calls him gay) is given its due, not having been underplayed in an effort to court a more mainstream audience. Mercury’s sense of sexuality, and the struggle of his own acceptance, is essential to getting to know this flamboyant front man. Except several of these scenes feel mishandled, which is odd considering director Bryan Singer (X-Men) has often found parallels in big studio films for the gay experience. The movie seems to say if his band mates had only accepted him more then maybe he wouldn’t have fallen into promiscuity by a bad influence and thus contracted HIV. There are also some pat answers as well like a disapproving father. However, the faults of Bohemian Rhapsody are compensated by its virtues, none more so than the electric performance by Rami Malek (TV’s Mr. Robot) as Mercury. The actor struts and preens with infectious charisma, and a mouth full of Mercury’s oversized choppers, and he miraculously captures the powerful stage magic of his character. The concluding 1985 Live Aid performance is astounding to witness and a reflection of just how essential and virtuosic Mercury and company were as live performers. It’s a sustained set of several hits and the movie just sings to a close on the highest of high notes. Bohemian Rhapsody is carried by the music and performance of Mercury the character and Malek the actor. It will make you want to rock out to Queen on the car ride home.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The John Gotti biopic has become somewhat notorious because of its 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, not that this is the first film to hit that dubious mark. It is bad, though not quite 0% bad. The biggest crime of this movie is that it at no point solidifies a reason why we should find John Gotti interesting. As played by John Travolta, he’s a ruthless leader who beat so many prosecutors that he was nicknamed the “Teflon Don.” He’s also really really boring, spouting stereotypical bromides about the importance of family, never giving an inch, never turning on your family (both capital F and lowercase f). It’s a cock-eyed worldview I’d expect, however, at the very end of the movie, the movie itself adopts this cock-eyed justifications, presenting the federal government as the real villains and inserting interview footage of real people eulogizing Gotti, saying he made their streets clean and cared about his community and was, essentially, a hero. It’s amazingly misguided, like director Kevin Connolly (“E” fro HBO’s Entourage) has suffered Stockholm syndrome from his lunk-headed, murderous criminals. That same sense of misjudgment is never more adamant than in the musical score by pop star Pitbull. Read that again. There’s a sequence where Gotti goes out on furlough and is escorted to kill an associate, and the musical score is jaunty and uptempo. There were several moments where the score just took my breath away, so tonally disjointed was this mostly modern-day musical score. The movie is structured as an ongoing series of interviews between Gotti Sr. (Travolta) and his adult son, with choice flashbacks interspersed. We don’t even get a rise-and-fall sort of formula. It never provides sufficient evidence why Gotti was interesting at all and worth a big screen biopic. The dialogue feels like it was written with all exclamation points. Nothing is subtle or left to the imagination here, and that extends into the scenery-chewing acting as well from a bunch of unmemorable stock roles. There is also a 1996 TV movie about John Gotti starring Armand Assante. Sight unseen, it must almost assuredly be the better movie and more worth two hours of your precious time.
Nate’s Grade: D+