By John H. Foote
We just watched a biography of a rock star win four Academy Awards including a Best Actor Award for Rami Malek as Queen front man Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, also winning Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Sound Editing. In addition, the film earned a ton of money and earned Malek excellent reviews. Let me be clear, I did not think Malek gave the best performance by a leading actor last year, not even close. Though he portrayed a rock singer, he did not do his own singing, not the first for sure, but that, to me matters…a lot. Gary Busey did his own singing in The Buddy Holly Story (1978) earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Sissy Spacek did her own singing on her way to an Oscar for Coal Miners Daughter (1980) and Val Kilmer nailed Jim Morrison in doing his own singing in The Doors (1991). More recently both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon handled their own vocals as Johnny Cash and June Carter in Walk the Line (2005). It matters. Would it not aid and benefit the actor in capturing the soul of the character? Not being an actor, I am not sure, but I suspect the answer is yes.
Nor do I think the sound awards were deserved and in fact should have been awarded to the producers of the records if anyone. Film editing? Seriously? Admittedly the recreation of Live Aid in 1985 was remarkable, but not deserving of Oscars. At the end of the day, for me, Bohemian Rhapsody was the most overrated film last year.
Having just seen Taron Egerton inhabit the body and soul of Elton John in a stunning performance, this is the performance Malek should have given.
Egerton is positively brilliant in the role and, guess what? He does his own singing, sounding not exactly like Elton John but certainly close enough to convince this hard ass critic he was the real deal.
The film is directed by Dexter Fletcher who finished Bohemian Rhapsody when Bryan Singer was fired from the film by the studio. Perhaps seeing everything Singer did wrong helped Fletcher decide what was right in telling this story.
Much of Elton John’s life plays like a fantasy, so the choice was made to set many of the life-altering events to his music, turning the sequences into fantasies which tell the narrative. It works most of time, a few fail, but even in their failure they are bold, breathtaking sequences that are spellbinding to watch.
We watch Reginald Dwight, a shy young man feeling unloved, audition for the Royal Academy of Music, and recognizing his immense gifts, he is in.
The film moves briskly through his career, a key sequence being John’s now legendary performance at the Troubadour, where his explosion of “Crocodile Rock” had the audience all but levitating out the door. At that moment, a rock star was born. He hooks up with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) for the most important creative partnership of his career and moves from singing in packed clubs to stadiums where tens of thousands scream for his music. But Elton always gave them a great deal more, his showmanship was extraordinary to behold. Crazy colourful costumes, literally thousands of pairs of eye glasses, feathers, wings, he drew attention in what he wore.
Throughout the film we see the rocker battling various addictions, no punches are pulled. At various times he was addicted to cocaine, painkillers, sex, shopping, alcohol, and God knows what else. The filmmakers have the courage to portray much of that in the film, giving the actor a great arc to portray and Egerton shines bright throughout. The story even includes the deep and very real love Elton had for heterosexual Taupin, a love that could never be.
Where the film shines is during the musical numbers which are electrifying, especially those that cross into fantasy. Egerton feels every lyric he sings, you see it on his face and hear it in his voice, and it is utterly transformative. He far surpasses what Rami Malek, a fine actor accomplished as Freddie Mercury, but will he be in the running for an Oscar? He should be. So good is Egerton there were moments I forgot I was watching a film.
The fantasy elements work beautifully because so much of John’s life must seem to him like a fantasy. His rise in the seventies is explored lovingly, honestly, the songs of the time used through the film. His bizarre period in the eighties is fraught with more addictions and scandal than music, and one of his more popular songs, the cheesy “I’m Still Standing”, is used to close out the film, and the cheesiness actually works.
As stated Egerton is magnificent as Elton John, from the slightly pudgy face, which endears him to us at once, to the incredible stadium performances through suffering the pain of drug rehab he creates a full-bodied three-dimensional character. Does he sound exactly like the rocker? No, but close enough to get my attention. The longing he presents for Taupin is heartbreaking, but it is clearly a love he can never have. The actor does what all great performances do, he captures the actors creative, wounded soul and merges them into art.
Jamie Bell, the young star of Billy Elliott (2000) all grown up, is excellent as Bernie Taupin who, because he does not perform, is often out of the limelight. Their creative split was a big deal, but each managed to move on without too much collateral damage.
In a wild piece of woeful miscasting, Bryce Dallas Howard is dreadful as John’s mother, a chilly, remote woman who leaves everyone wondering how the boy was conceived? Howard has been, on occasion, a very good actress but here she is so miscast she cannot be anything but atrocious. Thank God her screen time is limited.
It is way too early in the year to even begin predicting the Academy Awards, but Egerton is so good in the film it has to be discussed. I suspect the film will be a huge hit, possibly more so than Bohemian Rhapsody, and if it is even its equal at the box office, Egerton gets nominated. If not, he gets passed over. If enough people see this, and enjoy it as much as I did, if enough Academy members recognize their error last year in awarding Malek, Egerton gets nominated, and no one will be happier than I.
Far superior to Bohemian Rhapsody, not perfect, but a fun, warm celebration of the great Elton John.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.