FilmSpace: Rocketman; Breakthrough

Film critic Calum Cooper looks back at the week’s additional releases, including the exuberant musical biopic on Elton John, and a Christian drama that feels closer to a TV movie than a cinematic experience.

Rocketman – ★★★☆☆

Rocketman is a better Bohemian Rhapsody than Bohemian Rhapsody. It is not merely a stringing together of events in the life of a known rock-star. It is instead a colourful and visually splendid endeavour that touches equally on the highs and lows of a great man’s life. It’s quite a vulnerable piece, but I subscribe to the belief that we as people are at our strongest when we are willing to be so vulnerable.

Taron Egerton plays Elton John. We all know John for his unforgettable songs and vivacious wardrobe. But for many like myself it was all we knew about him. Named after one of his most popular songs, the film opens on John, in a vibrant devil costume, entering an alcoholics’ anonymous meeting. From there, albeit reluctantly so, he proceeds to detail his life story to the fellow attendees. Thus the film becomes a biopic on John’s life and career, from his days as a prodigy at the Royal Academy of Music to his gargantuan stardom.

However, the heart of the story is about John’s life struggles, from feelings of neglect early in his childhood to his battles against depression, addiction, and his acceptance of his sexuality. With guiding lights like that of his music partner Bernie (Jamie Bell) being overshadowed by the avarice of businessmen like John Reid (Richard Madden), and the memory of his absentee father (Steven Macintosh), the film becomes a world of contrasts: between the power of John’s music and the weight of his emotional strife. Between the dazzling world of fantasy and the darkness of despair; the lines becoming further and further blurred for better and for worse.

Egerton is the anchor of the film in a transformative portrayal that’s more than a simple imitation, for it taps into both the eccentricities and introversion that shaped John into the man he was and the man he is today. The costume design is terrific, and add much to the illusion that we are watching the real Elton John, but it is all down to Egerton’s mannerisms and subdued feelings. It’s a career best from him.

It’s a deeply personal film, and its willingness to showcase such reflection, instead of demanding sympathy, demonstrates a level of humbleness that’s hard not to lose yourself in, even without the radiant visuals.

But the film has a lot more going for it than a strong performance. John is a man of exuberance, as shown by his wacky costumes and unique stage presence, and this film follows suit, with a colour palette that looks like an arts and craft store exploded. It’s unapologetically extravagant in its visual splendour. It utilises sweeping camera movements, effervescent lighting and soulful usage of John’s songs as musical numbers.  Tonally it becomes a tremendous larger than life feel, yet is unafraid to take a step back and become quieter and more sullen during more vulnerable scenes, or even ramp up the glitz and glamour for the eerie feel of never knowing quite where you are, much like John himself.

From this, the film harnesses themes of self-reflection and conquering the woes of past and present. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, which felt like a hodgepodge of random scenes held together by a good performance (I’m eating my words over my Oscar doubtfulness towards Malek), Rocketman feels like an observational peering into John’s soul, from Egerton’s performance to the chosen narrative plot points to the very title of the film. The Rocketman song concerns an astronauts’s mixed feelings as he travels to Mars, e.g. a great unknown. Much like the song it is named after, the film details John’s mixed feelings as he is launched into the great unknown of fame and fortune, while reflecting on the mistakes and sorrows of his life. It’s a deeply personal film, and its willingness to showcase such reflection, instead of demanding sympathy, demonstrates a level of humbleness that’s hard not to lose yourself in, even without the radiant visuals.

The film can occasionally become too much for its own good. Elements of John’s life that could’ve gleaned a lot of potential in regards to the films themes, such as a failed marriage, are glossed over or rushed. It seems keener on hitting the main plot points systematically rather than indulge more in the aforementioned splendour, which stands out like a sore thumb among the otherwise grand spectacle on display. However, it’s easy to forgive as the film is a heartfelt and boisterous tribute to John, his life, and his music all at once, playing out in explosively bright fashion. As Egerton said in an interview, it plays more like a musical fantasy than a straightforward biopic. But, for a man as animated as Elton John, nothing could be more appropriate.

Breakthrough – ★★☆☆☆

Christian dramas rarely work for me. Not because they’re inherently bad films, but because many of them carry an uncomfortable, even patronising, air of self-righteousness. Whether it’s God’s Not Dead, Left Behind, that upcoming propaganda film Unplanned, or anything Kirk Cameron does, many of them use their faith not to spread the love and selflessness Christianity celebrates, but as a means to belittle and antagonise audience members who believe otherwise, particularly atheists like myself. They’re the cinematic equivalent to those malicious street preachers you always seem to spot on Buchanan Street.

Breakthrough does differ in that I think its heart is generally in the right place. However, the execution squanders what potential the film may have had. It’s mechanically designed to cater specifically to those who already subscribe to Christian views. Nothing wrong with that of course, but even deeply religious films have to consider wider audiences, or risk isolating everyone else. What could’ve been an inspirational showcasing on the strength of faith instead becomes, for lack of a better image, a melodramatic circle jerk.

John Smith (Marcel Ruiz) is a teenager adopted by staunchly Christian parents Joyce and Brian (Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas). He’s going through some abandonment issues, thus becoming distant from friends and family. One day, he and two friends are playing on a frozen lake and John breaks through, becoming submerged for 15 minutes. He’s taken to the hospital comatose, and the rest of the film concerns Joyce’s unwavering faith and belief that God will save her son. If you know anything about the real life story it’s based on then you already know what happens.

In the film’s favour are its performances. I’ve seen some reviewers say the film treats non-Christians cynically, and while I think it does in hindsight, it’s certainly not as condescending as say Saving Christmas. The performances play a large part in this as the strife felt is one that anybody can empathise with regardless of belief. The actors capitalise off of that well, delivering earnest portrayals of grief, fear, and hope that deserve more than the script that was provided.

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It’s simply too artificial to generate sufficient emotion beyond the cloying. There’s a soap opera feel to the dialogue, plotting, and character arcs that adds to the vacuity. Exposition and cries of faith are written clumsily, and the narrative is so conveyer belt routine that there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind what the outcome will be, even if you don’t know the real life story. While Joyce’s commitment to her son’s survival is a testament (no pun intended) to individual strength, it comes at the expense of the surrounding characters. Genuine hurt, like Brian’s inability to see his son in such a frail state, is treated as weakness. Doctors simply being realistic about the chances are seen as pessimistic obstacles to the inevitable miracle. And scenes of the community coming together in solidarity, in this case everybody lighting candles and singing outside John’s hospital window, play as laughably awkward instead of empowering or empathetic.

Furthermore, while the messages are benign for the most part, the imagery chosen to express them are eye-rolling in their lack of subtlety. The central conflict spans three days. Light shines and nature beckons toward hope even in the middle of the night. Revelations are visualised as people rising or looking up, and you can bet that arms are so spread it would make Man of Steel look agnostic. Don’t even get me started on the saccharine piano score too.

All the while, more thought provoking areas of exploration, such as why God chooses to save some and not others, are pushed to the side in favour of generic gospel. There’s only so much wink wink nudge nudge I can take. Having it executed in such corny and obvious fashion undercuts the good intentions that I believe the film genuinely had. It results in an experience that feels more at home on an evening slot on Channel 5 rather than at the cinema. At best it’s bland and predictable, and at worst it’s irritatingly preachy.

I am an atheist, but I’m not dismissive of religion or the good it can do for the individual. My best friend is a Christian, and I do think there is a place for films like Breakthrough within the cinema-verse. However, Christian dramas in general are going to have to start rethinking their approach if they want to be taken more seriously. Doubling down and catering solely to the crowds you know only works for so long.

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