Review – Rocketman, Northampton Filmhouse, 9th June 2019

Rocketman posterMrs Chrisparkle wasn’t keen on seeing this, but I heard great things, so I took the opportunity to nip into the Northampton Filmhouse by myself whilst she was slaying business dragons in America. I wouldn’t describe myself as an Elton John fan, exactly, but I have a very soft spot for a number of his songs, and I was intrigued to see what they do with all this potent raw material – a life of excess and a musical back catalogue that’s probably sold billions rather than millions.

Taron Egerton and Jamie BellRocketman is, on one hand, a stereotypical biopic taking us through the life of Elton John from his early boyhood up to the time when he crashed into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting bursting with crises. We see his suburban-comfortable but emotionally starved early days, with a distant military father who cannot cope with emotion and a vacuous mother whose only love is for herself – thank heavens for his kindly nan, Ivy, who was the only one to take any interest in young Reggie. We see him taking his first steps at the Royal Academy of Music, then breaking into the music business, getting signed to Dick James Music, starting a writing partnership with Bernie Taupin, making and selling records and – pretty much instantly – hitting America on tour. And whilst his commercial success escalates, his personal life deteriorates; the only constant in his life being Taupin, with whom he famously has never had an argument through fifty years of collaboration – that’s some achievement.

Taron Egerton rockingOn the other hand, the film is a fantasy musical, with much in common with other jukebox musicals, using songs from an artist’s repertoire to complement the various stages of their life. But the first musical number reminded me more of how La-La-Land starts (in other words, brilliantly, then never regaining that opening buzz) with a big song-and-dance extravaganza in the street. Then the rest of the songs are woven into Elton John’s story, some as concert material, but many in a more stylised, almost ethereal manner; and not only sung by John. In fact, one of the most emotionally powerful moments is Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, performed by Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin; one of those brilliant cover versions that completely rewrites the original.

Taron Egerton about to fallThe fact that the songs don’t appear chronologically disturbed me a little at first. Your Song (1970), for example, his first hit, is the seventh number to be performed during the film, whilst the first song in the film, The Bitch is Back, wasn’t released until 1974. Of course, that doesn’t matter with a show like Mamma Mia, where there is an invented story around which the Abba songs snugly fit; but that’s not the case for Rocketman, ostensibly a chronological biopic. However, it’s all performed so beautifully well, and the songs fit the various moods of the film so perfectly, that I had to tell myself to stop being so anal about it.

Taron EgertonWhat impressed me most of all about this film was the sheer quality of the attention to detail and its absolute verisimilitude throughout. The three actors who play Elton John at various stages of his life look and sing so very similarly to the real person; they even capture his smile – teeth slightly exposed, top lip lifted up – you don’t realise that’s how EJ smiles until you see the actors do it. The costumes throughout are a perfect mimic of his concert gear; the film’s finale is an (I believe) 100% correct recreation of the promotional video for his 1983 hit I’m Still Standing. That’s all incredibly impressive.

Richard Madden and Taron EgertonAs we know, Sir Elton has led a life of excess; we see the alcohol, we see the drugs. But what of the sex? In interview, Elton John said he had a lot of sex, but the film – despite its regrettable censorship in Russia to remove all traces of gayness – implies otherwise. It would appear that it’s not until he’s the recipient of a surprise kiss by one of the musicians on his first American tour that there’s any uncertainty over his sexuality; and any such doubts are put to bed (if you’ll pardon the expression) when he meets John Reid and, as a result, leaves DJM and takes Reid as his new manager/lover. But that’s all we know of his sex life; you might have thought he was completely celibate outside that relationship, and I have a sense that the film misrepresents his life in this department somewhat. In fact, the only other relationships we see him involved in are with Bernie Taupin’s landlady – that didn’t work, obvs – and the loveless, sterile few weeks of his good publicity marriage to Renate. His long-term relationship with David Furnish takes place long after the timespan of the film has ended. At the end of the day, the film shows that all Elton John ever really wanted was someone to love him, which was something everyone in his life was unable to provide except for Taupin and his nan.

Taron Egerton and Richard MaddenThe performances are delightfully strong throughout. It’s now too late to say of Taron Egerton that a star is born because of his Kingsman roles, but it’s definitely a star performance, with his huge on-screen presence, tremendous voice and just that magic je ne sais quoi. Please read my P. S. below to see how he wouldn’t have got where he is today if it wasn’t for me (I know, I’m so influential). He just exudes quality and authority; he “gets” Elton’s charisma even when he’s portraying him at his most down-and-out. Absolutely first class.

 Jamie Bell and Taron EgertonJamie Bell is superb as Taupin, that ever-reliable presence, a very open and honest guy who’s always the most supportive figure in EJ’s life. You really get the sense of the two of them together as being great mates, getting into a few scrapes but always there for each other – it’s a very heart-warming portrayal. Richard Madden plays Reid as though he’s auditioning for the next Bond movie; terse, arrogant, dynamic and highly convincing. You could really see how he could use sex as a weapon in the war of manipulation.

Steven MackintoshBryce Dallas Howard is also excellent as EJ’s deeply unpleasant mother Sheila, and there’s another mini star turn from Steven Mackintosh as his father; regimented, stiff-upper-lip, finding it impossible to conceal his total distaste for his son’s artistic interests. There’s a truly emotional scene when the successful Elton pays a visit to his estranged father and meets his two sons from his subsequent re-marriage – so, his own new half-brothers – and there’s no attempt to bridge any emotional gap between them, even though we can see how close his father is to his new progeny. You’d be devastated if it happened to you.

Matthew IlsleyBig mentions for Kit Connor and especially Matthew Ilsley as the young Reggies (older and younger) who make those opening scenes of the film such a joy. There are also some fantastic cameos from actors you’d queue to see at the theatre, like Sharon D Clarke as the counsellor, Harriet Walter as the Royal Academy of Music tutor, Ophelia Lovibond as Arabella, Celine Schoenmaker as Renate and Jason Pennycooke as Wilson. Blink and you’ll miss Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s Layton Williams as an American band member. And it’s lovely to see The Duchess of Duke Street herself, Gemma Jones, bringing warmth and character to the role of Ivy.

Bryce Dallas HowardThere’s a point in the film where the pace of the storytelling slows down, roughly coinciding with EJ’s descent into addiction and his increased antisocial behaviour; and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt the film sagged a little during those scenes. Otherwise, it’s an eloquent account of the first two-thirds of Sir Elton’s amazing life (what’s that you say? Leaving room for a sequel bringing us up to date if the film were a success?) and musically and visually it’s astounding entertainment. Plenty of Oscars and BAFTAs up for grabs here I expect. And why not?

the familyP. S. So, Taron Egerton’s first stage role was in The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre in 2012, the year he graduated from RADA. If I may quote myself, “in the smaller roles I thought Taron Egerton, in his first professional stage engagement, shows good promise”. High praise indeed; you heard it here first. None of the newspaper critics commented on his performance. #justsaying

Review – The Favourite, Northampton Filmhouse, 26th January 2019

tf posterAs long as I can remember I’ve been a theatre-type much more than a movie-type, so we don’t go to the films as often as most people. Surprise, surprise, we went twice last week! On Wednesday we saw the charming and enjoyable Stan & Ollie, and on Saturday night it was the turn of The Favourite.

olivia colmanI didn’t have much in the way of expectations, other than believing it to be a madcap and rather black comedy featuring Queen Anne. And of course, Olivia Colman, as the Royal Personage Herself, who was the prime reason we chose to see it. She can do no wrong in my book. And, to an extent, she continues to do no wrong as she is by far the best thing about this film; the other two good things being her co-stars, Rachel Weisz as the sinister and cruel Duchess of Marlborough and Emma Stone as the irrepressibly optimistic and ruthlessly manipulative Abigail Masham.

The plot can be summarised thus: two women vie for the attention of Queen Anne in order to gain power and status for themselves, and are not above indulging in a little sexual shenanigans to get it. Err… that’s it.

rachel weiszMany people I like, indeed love, and whose opinions I respect and admire, have told me what a jolly good film this is. Black comedy, rule breaking, innovative, savage, hilarious; toying with historical fact and historical fiction to create its own dystopian society. And, to be fair, it does achieve this very well. The one aspect of the film that amused me more than anything was how the queen made life or death decisions on the tactics of war with France at a complete whim and clearly without the first clue as to the logic of the battlefield. Because of the regal regime of terror and violence, and unctuous supplication to the crown, the politicians and the military can merely bow down, do her bidding and accept her stupidity. The queen only cares about herself, and her self-indulgences: eating and drinking too much, playing with her pet rabbits, and occasional cunnilingus provided by Abigail. The queen is a truly grotesque characterisation and Ms Colman carries it off with her usual aplomb.

I also know some people – not so many, but still significant – who didn’t rate the film at all. And I have heard of people walking out, which, as I was watching it, didn’t particularly surprise me. If you don’t “get” this film, it’s going to do nothing for you. Sadly, I am among that number. I didn’t get this film at all.

emma stoneIn fact, I got the sense all the way through that this was a film trying to shock for shock’s sake, rather than honestly and organically unfolding its story and characters. I felt like we’d gone back fifty years, and this was some creation of a wild child Ken Russell-type, perhaps with a spot of Andy Warhol or Derek Jarman thrown in. It came across as trying to push the boundaries of what would be allowed by a censor, even though those boundaries have long been established. There’s a brothel scene, so let’s have a bunch of female extras queueing up with their breasts out. There’s a shower scene (why?) so let’s have some more naked female extras having freezing buckets of water chucked over them so we can watch them suffer. Let’s see how many times we can get away with the main characters vomiting, and try to make it humorous by having flunkeys capture the puke in a silver ewer. Let’s see how uncomfortable we can make an audience by having someone tread heavily on a rabbit, for no reason other than because they can, so it cries out in pain. It strikes me that this is a director struggling with late-onset puberty.

tfEverything is done to excess in this film. Now, it may well be that it was an era of excess, so that it’s arguably a reasonable tactic to employ. But there are limits; even “doing it to excess” is done to excess. When Abigail gets off the coach at the beginning of the film, she can’t just get out of it, she has to be pushed out so that she falls face first in the midden. When she’s in conversation with the MP who wants her to spy on the queen, it can’t just end there, she has to be pushed head first so that she falls flat down a hill (same joke twice, well done.) When she has offended protocol by attending to the queen’s inflamed legs without permission, she isn’t simply dismissed, she’s punished with three savage strokes (was going to be six but it was curtailed) of the birch performed in full view for general entertainment. When anyone disapproves of something, they shout. Especially the queen. She shouts loudly, gracelessly, savagely, ear-piercingly; no filter, as the Insta crowd say. This may be all very clever but, boy, does it get on your nerves.

nicholas-houltEven the cinematography has the feel of someone who’s been let off the leash for the first time, playing with effects to see if they work. What does this button do? Oooh it’s fish-eye! Let’s start lots of the scenes fish-eye style for no apparent reason whatsoever apart from seeing what it looks like. And what’s this button? Wow, it’s widescreen! Let’s use this as another tool for disorienting the audience, yay! Have you heard about this thing where you can layer one image on top of another so that it looks really groovy? Let’s include that for no reason whatever! Oh, and have you finished doing the titles yet? Oh great, you’ve used an ornate font and centre-justified them so that they look like a block of words that’s impossible to read! A perfect symptom of a product that’s all show and no substance!

queen anneNo, I’m not buying this. 120 minutes including the occasional chuckle but many more wtf moments. Mrs Chrisparkle managed to stay awake but was severely bored. I wasn’t bored, I was just stunned by its assumption that we’d fall for old-fashioned shock tactics straight out of the late 60s. There’s probably a very good film hidden in there somewhere. Go away and do it again.

joe alwynP. S. I forgot the ducks. I did like the ducks. BAFTA nomination for Best Waterfowl in a Supporting Role.

Review – Stan & Ollie, Northampton Filmhouse, 23rd January 2019

stan and ollieFor how many more years are we all going to remember the comedy giants of the early age of cinema? When I was a lad, the likes of Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin were shown on TV all the time. I guess they weren’t that old at the time – yikes, where does the time go?! Bob Monkhouse had a regular TV show where he indulged in the comedy nostalgia – Mad Movies – and kept alive the antics of the Keystone Cops and others. My late father was a big fan of Buster Keaton, and Fatty Arbuckle – which today is like saying you enjoy Gary Glitter – and the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle loved Laurel and Hardy. She saw them at the London Palladium in 1947; it was one of her favourite memories.

The Biograph GirlBut what do these old stars mean to today’s YouTube generation? It’s inevitable that at some point the memories will fade for good. There’s a sad and beautiful song from a long-forgotten 1980 musical, The Biograph Girl, about silent film star Mary Pickford, where the advent of the talkies meant that no one wanted to see the silent oldies anymore: “Put it in the tissue paper, they won’t want that shadow till another day, will we be reissued later, or condemned for life upon a shelf to stay?” In live theatre, my great-aunt, born in 1905, adored the old music-hall artists and would sing the songs of Marie Lloyd, Hetty King and Vesta Tilley. Even today, I still think The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery is one of the most charming songs I know – and there’s no one alive who was around when that was in the charts (so to speak). And talking of the charts, that always used to be one way of keeping old songs alive. The recent death of the much-loved Windsor Davies has reminded us how his version of Whispering Grass with Don Estelle, reached No 1 in the summer of 1975. Laurel and Hardy’s On The Trail of the Lonesome Pine spent four weeks at either No 2 or No 3 around Christmas the same year. Can’t imagine either of those happening today.

the boysBut while there are new releases like Stan and Ollie hitting our screens, maybe interest in these old characters will hang around for a few years yet. In case you didn’t know (I’m sure you must) Laurel and Hardy were box-office dynamite. Between 1921 and 1951 they made no less than 106 films, including 34 early silent films, and 27 full-length feature films – full-length in those days meant about an hour or so. They had the classic, visually hilarious double-act look, with Stan Laurel as a beanpole simpleton and Oliver Hardy as the wise-cracking fat man, which formed the basis of a number of subsequent double-acts – Little and Large, for instance, come to mind. As a kid, I found Oliver Hardy incredibly funny, but Stan Laurel something of a hanger-on, and I remember being amazed when the Dowager told me that it was Laurel who was the creative genius and comic innovator, whereas Hardy simply did what he was told; and that’s something that comes across very strongly in this new film.

Steve CooganThe film starts off with “the boys” on the set of Way Out West, where we see them shoot their famous comedy dance routine which recurs throughout this film, as they would later incorporate it into their stage act. But there’s confrontation with producer Hal Roach over Laurel’s general behaviour, and intimations that there may be problems ahead when Laurel’s contract with the studio runs out before Hardy’s. Hal Roach kept Hardy on for one more film after Laurel left the studio, Zenobia, featuring an elephant, where the actor Harry Langdon took on the Laurel role. From this awkwardness rises Stan and Ollie’s strongest theme, that of loyalty and partnership.

john c reillyFast forward to 1953, and the boys are in England, starting a tour of theatres which would culminate in a London date and then filming a new movie based on the story of Robin Hood. But their fortunes are down. In Newcastle, they check into a dismal looking pub for three nights, in preparation for their performances at the Queen’s Hall, (not the prestigious Theatre Royal). They meet producer Bernard Delfont, but he’s much more interested in promoting his new protégé Norman Wisdom. There’s little publicity, audiences are thin on the ground, and it’s painful to watch. In order to avoid cancelling shows, Delfont subtly tricks them into doing some publicity, and then the audiences start to turn up. By the time their wives arrive in the UK, Delfont has secured them two weeks at the Lyceum Theatre in London.

drinksBut the tensions in their relationship return to the surface as Laurel reminds Hardy about the elephant movie. Barely talking to each other, their tour continues to Worthing, but when they’re judging a beauty pageant for publicity, Hardy has a heart attack. He can’t work – in fact, he’s told to retire. Delfont wants Laurel to double up with comedy actor Nobby Cook for the rest of the tour, but would that mean Laurel showing the same disloyalty that he’s accused Hardy? And what’s going to happen to the film of Robin Hood?

shirley henderson and nina ariandaIt’s a well-written, frequently funny, slightly sentimental and thoroughly nostalgic story brought to life by some extremely good performances and characterisations. Steve Coogan and John C Reilly are amazingly convincing as the dynamic duo, Mr Reilly in particular becoming the spitting image of Oliver Hardy, after having to spend (apparently) four hours in make up before each shoot. Their mannerisms, their vocal tics, their walks, their facial expressions are recreated lovingly to perfection. Rufus Jones is also terrific as Bernard Delfont, persistently manipulative and with both eyes on the finances but always impeccably polite about it. There’s another superb double act in the form of Mrs Laurel and Mrs Hardy; Shirley Henderson is Hardy’s devoted wife Lucille, a mouse masquerading as a rottweiler, and highly protective of her Ollie; and Nina Arianda plays Laurel’s abrasive wife Ida, drinking his drinks, encouraging spats with Lucille, and hilariously refusing to sit next to Delfont for no apparent reason. There are some lovely minor supporting performances, with John Henshaw as the egregiously chirpy Nobby Cook, Stephanie Hyam (?) playing Miffin’s dopey receptionist and Delfont’s dreadfully hollow charity friends, whom I can’t identify from the rather under-detailed cast lists. How’s the piano? is a priceless line when you get to it.

steve coogan and john c reillyTo join a couple of metaphors, it doesn’t shake too many trees but at the same time it does exactly what it says on the can. Buoyed up by its excellent performances, you’ll enjoy this if you have happy memories of Laurel and Hardy or if you want to find out a bit more about them without sitting through some old black and white comedy.

steve coogan and nina ariandaP. S. Laurel and Hardy appearing at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Really? Are you sure? At the time, the premises were operated by Mecca and were only licensed as a ballroom from 1945 onwards. According to Mander and Mitchenson’s The Theatres of London (the bible for all things theatre-based as far as I’m concerned) there were no live performances on that particular stage from 1939 until 1963. Indeed, the London County Council (and I’m quoting from the book) “stated in 1952 that the highest offer received for use as a theatre was £11,500, as against the dance-hall offer of £20,000; but it would need £50,000 to restore it to theatrical use.” I’m not saying this is pure fiction, but if you have any definitive information on Laurel and Hardy performing at the Lyceum in 1953/4, please let me know!

at the savoyP. P. S. Not only do Messrs Coogan and Reilly perform the Way Out West dance with admirable accuracy, they also give us an immaculate performance of On The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. I defy you to walk home after the movie and not break into the chorus.