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Cannes 2019: Rocketman

Cannes always struggles to strike the right balance between serving as a showcase for rarefied excellence in world cinema and affording glitzy photo ops to the planet's biggest celebrities—which means that sometimes starry movies that shouldn't be uttered in the same breath as the phrase "Palme d'Or" can sneak their way into the Grand Théâtre Lumière, safely programmed out of competition.

On the basis of "Rocketman," which brought Elton John to the red carpet last night, no film that will follow in this year's festival could possibly be too dour, too arty, or too difficult that it would risk overcompensating for this glitter gun of a movie, which is not good, but it delivers the glam it promises in excess. Sir Elton even apparently performed at last night's beach party—an event that alone probably generated enough headlines to justify the inclusion. (Also, I should have gone. Drat.)

With John himself credited as executive producer (and presumably giving his full sign-off to anything on screen), "Rocketman" was directed by Dexter Fletcher, whose most recent claim to fame is finishing "Bohemian Rhapsody" after Bryan Singer's departure. Like that film, "Rocketman" is essentially a "featuring the songs of" Broadway musical in the guise of a biopic. The human drama is simply filler designed to propel viewers from one hit to the next.

Gratifyingly, "Rocketman" dispenses with the notion that we need to see these songs performed in recording studios or at concerts and simply goes whole-hog movie musical. (The screenplay is by Lee Hall, of both the stage and screen versions of "Billy Elliot.") When John (Taron Egerton, whose lively mimicry—he does his own singing—goes a long way toward carrying the movie) gives a breakthrough performance of "Crocodile Rock" at Los Angeles's Troubadour club, he levitates at the piano. "Honky Cat" becomes a musically incongruous tribute to MGM's Freed Unit, replete with costume changes and a city skyline backdrop.

"Rocketman" doesn't deviate from the fundamentals of the pop-music biopic. Maybe young Elton (then Reggie Dwight) really did ask his father (Steven Mackintosh), "When are you going to hug me?" Maybe his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) really did complain to him, at the height of his success, that she never should have had children. The movie is at least slightly tongue-in-cheek in its adherence to the usual fame-drugs-redemption clichés. It's told in flashback from a rehab meeting, which John attends in a full winged-devil costume with heart-shaped glasses.

The title song takes the award for most non sequiturs in a single montage. After diving into a pool in an ostensible suicide attempt, John sings "Rocket Man" with his younger self (Matthew Illesley), who is playing a little piano on the pool floor, before being carted away on a gurney by paramedics, who take him straight to a concert at Dodger Stadium, a performance that climaxes with him shooting into the sky. A runner-up for arbitrariness is "Bennie and the Jets," which John sings as he stage-dives into what looks like a Madonna-directed production of "Cabaret." Fletcher seems more comfortable with big set pieces than with dialogue. A scene with the music publisher Dick James (Stephen Graham) doesn't reach "Bohemian Rhapsody" levels of weird editing, but the camera turns up in a quite a few corners of that room.

As for the movie's content, "Rocketman" attributes John's rise to fame to killer piano skills and the usual self-help aphorisms (the singer is advised to "kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be"; ponder that for a moment). His demons stem from various deficits of love in his life. His manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), sleeps with him but sees him more as a cash cow than an equal romantic partner. (The movie isn't as coy about gay sex as "Bohemian Rhapsody" was, but there's nothing terribly boundary-pushing for a Hollywood film, either.) His longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), loves him as a brother. His father, given an opportunity to make up with his estranged-but-now-famous son, merely asks for an autograph for a co-worker.

But picking at the sillier details of a production that aspires to camp excess is beside the point. Would "Rocketman" be a better movie if it were less extravagant, or if it dwelled less on the question of whether Elton John could himself feel the love tonight? "Rocketman" is high as a kite, flying well above any potential criticism from the Croisette.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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