Film & Television

Summertime, and the Movies are Musical

Go to the movies this summer, and there’s a good chance you’ll come out humming a tune.

Even if you haven’t seen the biopic musical fantasy Rocketman yet, it’s been hard to avoid it completely. The film, written by Lee Hall, directed by Dexter Fletcher, and starring Taron Egerton doing an uncanny impersonation of Sir Elton John, has had a promotional push worthy of Captain Fantastic himself. Unlike last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman doesn’t pretend to be a literal or particularly accurate telling of the rock superstar’s rise from little Reggie Dwight to worldwide fame. Instead we’re treated to singing and dancing flashbacks, gravity-defying fans, and drug induced hallucinations — all set to John’s greatest hits. Songs like “Crocodile Rock,” “Saturday Night’s Alright,” “I’m Still Standing,” and “Pinball Wizard” aren’t presented chronologically, but dramatize events in the pop singer’s life. So, young Reggie (wistful Matthew Illesley, a ringer for the star at age seven or so), suffering through a fairly wretched family life, sings the plaintive “I Want Love” in the early 1950s, although the song wouldn’t come out until 2001.

Egerton, previously seen as Eggsy Unwin, protégé to Colin Firth’s Harry Hart in the Kingsman films, is marvelous as Elton John. He resembles the singer quite a bit and sounds like him even more. It’s exciting to be reminded of John’s established talent while delighting in the unexpected gifts of a new star. Egerton may — and should — be in the running for an Oscar next year. 

There’s been some criticism that the film’s other characters are two-dimensional. It is really Elton’s story told from Elton’s perspective and set to Elton’s music. However, the supporting cast is fine, if underused. Rocketman features a plumper than usual Bryce Dallas Howard as the singer’s careless mother, Gemma Jones as his more supportive grandmother, Richard Madden as his villainous manager and former lover John Reid, and Jamie Bell as his lifelong collaborator and best friend Bernie Taupin.

Rocketman leaves you with a new (or renewed) appreciation for the prodigious talents of John and lyricist Taupin. It makes you sympathize with the singer as a child and shake your head in wonder at the hot mess he became. How he survived years of substance abuse — in one infamous 1975 episode, included in the movie, he swallowed 85 Valiums and fell into his swimming pool in the middle of a party — is fairly miraculous. But, he did, making music and touring throughout. Rocketman doesn’t shy away from the grittier aspect of John’s life. As the singer explained to The Guardian, “They wanted to tone down the sex and drugs. But I haven’t led a PG-13 life.” Next year, he’ll celebrate thirty years of sobriety.

Next year would also have marked the 85th birthday of another “rocketman,” the most commercially successful opera singer of all time, Luciano Pavarotti. In Ron Howard’s new documentary Pavarotti (showing now in limited release), the legendary tenor’s life is traced from his childhood in war-torn Modena, Italy, through his classical career, to his sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden and Hyde Park. Pavarotti, due to his humanitarianism, willingness to work with pop musicians, and always larger than life personality, successfully crossed over, drawing crowds and selling more than 100 million albums before his death in 2007.

Howard (whose unparalleled list of credits includes Eight Days a Week, a documentary about the Beatles during their touring years) worked with a veritable wealth of existing material. Unlike Enrico Caruso (whom Pavarotti idolized), who left only rather scratchy analog recordings, Pavarotti had a career chronicled in countless sound and video recordings, concert footage, and televised productions and interviews. Consequently, Howard is often able to allow the maestro himself to tell his story, along with personal reminiscences from his ex-wife, two long-time lovers, daughters, and professional colleagues. Pavarotti had an infectious sense of humor and almost unquenchable joie to vivre (or, I suppose “gioia di vivere” would be a more appropriate description). This was a man who truly loved wine, women, and song.

Of course, the most exhilarating scenes in the film are those in which Pavarotti sings — whether he’s reaching his famous and seemingly effortless nine high C’s in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment, bringing down the house with a playful encore of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma!” with pals Placido Domingo and José Carreras in The Three Tenors, or joining U2’s Bono for a duet of “Miss Sarajevo” to benefit Bosnian refugees. It is impossible to watch Pavarotti without feeling an overwhelming sense of admiration and gratitude. As filmmaker Howard told Rolling Stone, 

“We felt like it was a surprising story. Even though he’s a household name, there was so much that none of us really knew about his life, which turned out to be pretty operatic in its own right. The more I dug into the reading and watching performances, I, as a movie director, felt like the close-ups of him singing were akin to Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or something. He’s so powerful, emotional, and expressive.”

Another powerful, emotional, and expressive documentary, completed last year but just now hitting select theaters, is Amazing Grace, directed by Alan Elliott and the late Sydney Pollack. The inimitable power of Aretha Franklin is brought to life through archival footage of two incredible days at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, where she recorded what became a best-selling gospel album. 

Pollack began the project in 1972 but gave up on it when his team was unable to correct some audio synchronization issues. Nearly a half century later, Elliott, an Atlantic Records executive, took on the unfinished project, using modern digital editing tools. The film provides us with front-row seats for a historic moment in music. But even as Franklin’s astonishing voice soars, it remains surprisingly intimate. The significance and sobriety of the modest church setting isn’t lost on the choir, the congregation, or its guests (including an awe-struck Mick Jagger). In fact, as he introduces the “Queen of Soul,” Reverend Cleveland reminds everyone that, “This is a church. And we are here for a religious service.”

And, I have to agree. The opportunity to watch and hear Franklin in Amazing Grace is indeed a religious experience.

A final musical film of note comes out at the end of this week. Yesterday is one of those movies where you cross your fingers that the feature-length film will live up to its absolutely wonderful trailers. The premise of the movie is deliciously silly. One night, there’s an unexplained global blackout. The next day, no one on Earth remembers the Beatles, who they were, what they sang — except for one struggling musician, Jack Malik (relative newcomer Himesh Patel). Suddenly, he has the entire catalog of the “Fab Four” at his disposal. As you might expect, Jack instantly becomes the world’s most famous singer-songwriter, much to the dismay of sweet schoolteacher Ellie Appleton (Downton’s Lily James), who has a crush on him but worries he’s out of her reach. Appearances by real-life musician Ed Sheeran and SNL Emmy-winner Kate McKinnon add to the fun. Yesterday is directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and written by Jack Barth and Richard Curtis (Love Actually) so we have good reason to be optimistic about it. Even if, as we learn in the trailers, Jack’s producers persuade him to change “Hey, Jude” to “Hey, Dude.” 

There are plenty of reasons to go to the movies in the summertime: big-budget blockbuster hits, overpriced popcorn with “buttery topping,” the latest Toy Story. Or, my favorite: air conditioning.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.