MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Singer-songwriter Elton John has been making music (mostly featuring lyrics by Bernie Taupin) for fifty years. His songs have sold millions of records and have been covered by dozens of recording artists. His career trajectory began in the working-class neighborhood of Pinner in Sussex, England as a child piano prodigy and his fame led him to great wealth as well as philanthropy and human rights activism (for which he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998).
It would have been easy to make a crowd-pleasing jukebox musical featuring lip synched hits accompanied by reenactments of his spectacularly costumed stage incarnations. That would be an entertainment that the whole family could enjoy together.
Rocketman is not that movie. The film is self-described as “based on a true fantasy” and incorporates set pieces that range from a choreographed neighborhood singalong to “The Bitch is Back”, a gravity-defying performance of “Crocodile Rock” at The Troubadour and a wild orgy scene set to “Bennie and the Jets”. Taron Edgerton does all of his own singing in the lead role and there is no attempt to make his performance an imitation of Elton John.
And yet the movie works because it is not only audacious but also heart-rending in its honest depiction of Elton’s search for a sense of purpose as well as real friendship and love at a time in which the music business was prepared to enable everything that could fill that empty space. In an early scene at an AA meeting that opens the film and leads to a feature-length flashback, the singer confesses: “I am Elton John and I am an alcoholic. I am also a drug addict. I am a sex addict...”
Elton was also a conflicted homosexual who began a furtive affair with his manager (Richard Madden) who used and exploited him. Elton later entered into a heterosexual marriage which only brought pain to his wife, as well. The dependable touchstone through it all was his platonic love and friendship with his songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin (Bell). Eventually, Elton would move from denial of his sexuality, followed by a season of promiscuity and flamboyant stage shows, eventually arriving at a stable relationship and family with David Furnish (with two children and ten godchildren), sobriety, and writing for musical theater and films and spending much time with charity.
Elton John was an executive producer of Rocketman, which hits theaters just prior to Elton’s Farewell Tour. The film (which covers only the difficult first 25 years) is not only a celebration of making it through Hell and back (and able to sing “I’m Still Standing”) but a plea for a kinder, more inclusive world in which friendship is valued, music can bring joy, and people no longer have to live in the shadows of prejudice and gender bias. In spite of our church’s debate over homosexuality, we stand united around the grace that Christ offers around the communion table and make membership vows to “accept the freedom and power God gives [us] to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”
As Charles and John Wesley (another great songwriting team) knew, if good theology has a good tune, it sticks with you. Rocketman has good tunes and a strong message as well.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Three halos: Within this standard biopic are some amazing musical moments as well as a popular artist exorcising his demons and finding the love that can save him.
Four pitchforks: Strong language throughout; a couple of graphic sex scenes; drug and alcohol abuse; scenes of overdoses and attempted suicide; brief violence; parental disregard.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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