By Derek May:
It was only a matter of time before it happened. Elton John is near-unanimously hailed across music genre lines as one of the greatest, most influential musicians of his lifetime, and with good reason. His music is personal and yet universal, epic and yet melodic. Though the music and the man are inextricably linked, one without the other only gives us half the story. And thus it’s both obvious and a stroke of genius to present Elton John’s quintessential biopic as a musical fantasy, weaving together a standard dramatic narrative with ethereal, dreamlike song and dance sequences. And somehow . . . it all works.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: with the massive critical and commercial success of last year’s Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, comparisons between that work and this are all but unavoidable. Both showcase a gay musical icon of the 70s and 80s who struggled with the personal demons of sex, drugs, alcohol, and toxic managerial lovers who sent them astray. Behind the camera, there are even more connections, with Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher having finished the work on Rhapsody after Brian Singer was fired, and the character of producer John Reid even appears in both films (played by Game of Thrones alumi Aidan Gillen in Rhapsody and Richard Madden in Rocketman). But despite all these, the two films are wildly and markedly different in presentation, tone, and theme, and as such should be judged on their own merits.
Good, now that that’s settled, Rocketman is every bit the reflection of its subject. Flamboyant, excessive, beautiful . . . and tragically human. The film chronicles Elton (born Reggie Dwight) from his earliest years through his dalliances with drugs, sex, suicide, and depression until the early 80s when he is finally able to receive the catharsis needed to overcome these issues and sober up. The theme of the film is therefore one of personal growth and self-acceptance, as well as learning to be open to the love you deserve. But the journey is long and difficult, fraught with misturns and dead ends. But it’s also extraordinarily relatable, as it’s a universally human expedition that we all experience in some form or another. And that’s really the brilliance of the film, to somehow balance the carnival-level pageantry with the all-too-human personal and emotional trials.
Fletcher and writer Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, Victoria & Abdul) understand that the spectacle and the man are one, and must work in a kind of harmony rather than in opposition, or worse, gratuitously. Fletcher—who I first noticed as an actor back in 1998’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels—shows a masterful command of visual storytelling by knowing when to push the dreamlike extravaganza and when to allow the drama to breathe unencumbered. Several moments are expressed without hardly a word spoken, and yet the plot and emotion come through with crystal clarity. The songs aren’t just for reference, but thematic expressions of what is happening at the given moment. Thus, they aren’t always in chronological order, but where they have the most relevance.
While this is all of critical importance, the movie truly rides on its cast to bring it all to life, and particularly on its Elton. Personally, I can’t think of anyone better suited to the role than Taron Egerton, who’s quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. Egerton was fairly impressive in his breakout role in the Kingsmen franchise, but he absolutely blew me away in one of my favorite sports films, Eddie the Eagle (which, as it happens, was also directed by Fletcher). He’s got the look, the acting chops, and to my personal surprise, the voice. Egerton is an accomplished singer, and performs all of the songs in Rocketman himself (a requirement by Sir Elton). And he kills it. Egerton embodies the varied aspects of the man, from the shy sweetness of a musical prodigy to the giddy jubilation of a rising star, and ultimately, to the crushing pain of a man who feels unloved and cast aside. Egerton does it all with a panache and a charm that instantly endears, and his ability to sometimes seamlessly navigate across the emotional spectrum within a scene is simply a joy to behold. For me, his performance is every bit as good, if not better, than Malek’s in Rhapsody, and it will truly be a crime if it’s not equally recognized come awards season.
But as Elton John fans surely know, the face of the music has never been in it alone. John’s musical partner, Bernie Taupin, presents as far more than the simple writer of these classic songs, but as Elton’s brother, confidant, and support system throughout the many years. Thespian Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Fantastic Four) has made just as many questionable film decisions over his career as he has memorable ones, but his skills as a performer are never in doubt. And once again, he knocks it out of the park as Taupin, a man struggling to find a way to support his friend as well as live his own life. Bell’s quiet, understated choices reflect the gentle hand he tries to offer his friend. Sure, there might have been a few hiccups along the way, and Taupin isn’t presented as perfect, but he’s certainly the rock on which Elton relies, and Bell plays off Egerton with mutual chemistry and proficiency.
Special recognition has to be given to Bryce Dallas Howard’s portrayal of John’s mother, Sheila. Aside from a disturbingly spot-on English accent, she somehow manages to infuse Sheila with a humanity that could easily be lost amidst the poisonous disdain or outright apathy of the woman. Howard gives a warts-and-all performance, running headlong into some of Sheila’s worst attributes while also making her a sincere and at least partially interested mother. It feels safe to say this is her best exhibition to date, and like Egerton, I truly hope she is acknowledged properly for her work.
Richard Madden provides in an impressive turn as John’s manager and part-time lover, John Reid. Madden is simultaneously charming and despicable, with a smooth exterior that belies his hard edged personality. What sets it apart from, say, Allen Leech’s similar function as Paul Prenter in Rhapsody is that Reid demonstrates an aspect untouched there: that of the physically abusive relationship. The turbulent back and forth between the two men serve to add another layer to Elton’s tragic tale as an abuse survivor trapped in yet-another unloving relationship.
This is a key aspect to the film, not just in its subject matter but in the fact that the film dares to hold nothing back. Fletcher and team bare it all to show the sex, the drugs, the abuse, the lack of parentage, as well as the consequences thereof. It really cements the audience’s sympathies for John and makes his inevitable rise above it all that much more meaningful.
Rocketman is a daring portrayal not just of an icon but of a man’s search for love. The story ultimately suggests, like with many things, that it may not be found without, but within. Being loved starts with being true to yourself and accepting that some things aren’t within your control. The filmmakers and cast deliver a soulful experience that takes you to ecstatic heights and forbidding lows, all to better appreciate the man (and men) behind it all—but more importantly, that even our rock gods are mortal. Elton John said in a recent interview that the friendship he’s struck with Taron Egerton has led to the conviction to ensure the younger man avoids the pitfalls of the elder. Whether said sincerely or in jest, I think it still rings true for the movie at large. If it can help someone out there going through some of the same pains, perhaps it will have meant more than just to honor a great man. But either way, the film dutifully and energetically pays tribute to one of the greats who, unlike some of the contemporaries, is still standing amongst us.
YANG: Always Be My Maybe
By now, most audience members know the romantic comedy formula well enough to probably recite it by heart. And while many films in recent years have strived to find new ways to spin the old tropes, the basic formula is a stalwart for a reason—and audiences now come with certain expectations. The best most films can hope for, then, is to create engaging characters, layer in some meme-worthy gags, and provide a more equal focus between the genders. Netflix, in particular, has proven itself a strong player in the game, with such refreshing fare as Set It Up, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and now, with the recently released Always Be My Maybe that’s blowing up the internet.
Always Be My Maybe has been compared to When Harry Met Sally, and while I think that might be a bit of a stretch, it also holds a solid degree of validity. The story follows childhood friends Sasha (Ali Wong) and Marcus (Randall Park), who reunite later in life and slowly come realize what everyone else in the universe seems to have always known: that they’re perfect for each other. The story is meant to be relatively straightforward, as the crux and the humor comes from the journey of discovery between these two characters. And in that it certainly works. While I don’t think the film offers much new on the page, and isn’t necessarily one of the most laugh-out-loud comedies of the genre, it does provide an honest, heartfelt, and humorous look at two well-rounded human beings struggling to figure out this crazy thing called life, with a cast of endearing and relatable actors who can deliver a tear every bit as well as a punchline.
If you’ve even semi-regularly read my reviews, you’ve likely picked up that one of my favorite TV comedies is Fresh Off the Boat—and Maybe serves as something of a reunion for its creators. Nahnatchka Khan, creator of that series, directs the film that was co-written by Park (who plays patriarch Louis Huang on FOTB) and Wong (who is a writer on the show). Likewise, I think it may be fair to say that without the massive success of FOTB co-star Constance Wu’s Crazy Rich Asians, a rom-com starring two Asian-American leads might have had a harder time coming to fruition.
But while both of those earlier projects offer a heavy focus on the ethnic experience, Maybe chooses not to dwell much on that aspect. Of course, it has some wonderful insights into Asian-American and immigrant culture, and it’s certainly a major influence in these characters’ lives, but the point isn’t that they are Asian-American but that they are simply a man and woman dealing with universal problems we can all relate to. I think the power is not in emphasizing differences, but in highlighting similarities. And in that regard, the film is a fresh and exciting experience.
And speaking of our main duo, the film hinges not only on the performances of Wong and Park, but on their chemistry and unique sensibilities. The pair have known each other for the better part of two decades, and I think it shows. They have a comfortable ease with each other even when playing through periods of strained tension. Both are accomplished comedians, actors, and writers, and it shows in the well-crafted narrative and balance between subtle and overt humor. Kahn, too, seems to know when to let the thesps go off and when to rein them in. Having followed these actors, I know they can certainly riff into all manner of humor, but Kahn steadies the ship by making sure the emotional stakes and relationship points are the key focus, with the humor supporting rather than distracting from that.
Along those lines, Ali Wong really impressed me with her natural dramatic skills. Known primarily for her raunchy comedy (check out her two Netflix stand-up specials—hilariously NSFW), she delivers a powerfully nuanced performance here. The role provides a perfect platform to display her range, and Wong takes full advantage. And in another deviation from the typical, it’s her character—rather than the man’s—who gets to be surrounded by sexy specimens like Park, Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, Hawaii Five-O), and of course, the one himself, Keanu Reeves (more on him later). But even more importantly, Sasha isn’t just a woman trying to choose between suitors; she’s a highly successful business woman on a sky-rocketing path who doesn’t have to compromise between love and a career. She doesn’t need a man to be fulfilled, she just needs the right partner to be happy.
Which brings us to Park’s character, Marcus, a somewhat developmentally arrested musician all-too-comfortable to wallow in his stagnant existence. It’d be easy to pay the loafing, pot-smoking man-child as either caricature or stereotype, but Park is able to keep Marcus as a flawed adult rather than a child-like simpleton. Marcus is actually quite savvy, talented, and focused when need be: he’s just scared. Scared of moving out of his comfort zone, both figuratively and literally, and, like Sasha, his problem isn’t in needing someone to fix him to but to provide the safe space and understanding for him to fix himself. In addition to his admirable acting chops, Park brings his musical talents along too. Park wrote much of the music for Marcus’s band, Hello Peril, a mellow funk rap quartet just ripe to burst onto the larger world stage. Like the movie itself, Park’s lyrics are insightful, funny, and always driven by the characters, not the jokes. One of my all-time favorites is the epic “I Punched Keanu Reeves,” and if you’re wondering why anyone would do such a thing, well . . .
We’ve come now to what has seemingly been the film’s biggest draw: the hilarious and surreal cameo by that icon of cinema, Keanu Reeves. With all due respect to the John Wick franchise, Reeves may be tackling his toughest role yet here—that of Keanu Reeves. I love it when stars play heightened, awkward, even evil versions of themselves in comedies, and it’s all the sweeter here given Reeves’s reputation as one of the nicest humans to walk this Earth. I don’t want to give too much away because it truly is worth experiencing for yourself, but I dare say Reeves is having an absolute blast. Having played so many tough guys roles of late, it was a welcomed respite to see him lighten up and be simply ridiculous, harking back to that effervescent joy we loved in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (BTW, a third installment is finally on the way—most triumphant!). The version they crafted of Keanu here is perfect Hollywood hipster douche, and the building tension between he and Marcus is delightfully awkward. Reeve is not the sole reason the film is worth seeing, but his scenes are certainly a major draw and a stroke of sheer brilliance on the creators’ part.
The supporting roles are all equally eclectic and enjoyable. Previously mentioned Daniel Dae Kim plays against type as Sasha’s fiancé and gives us a wonderfully disconnected jerk to root against. Michelle Buteau makes a strong breakout as Sasha’s matchmaking assistant Veronica, delivering some of the best deadpan lines in the film. And the guy who’s seemingly everywhere these days, Karan Soni (who popped up in Netflix’s Unicorn Store as well), is here in an unusual turn as one of Marcus’s frustrated bandmates. And it’s nice to see Charlene Yi onscreen again, taking break from a solid voice-acting career of late.
All in all, Always Be My Maybe is a delightful rom-com that does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It delivers a sweet and relatable story, some ingenious gags and cameos to get audiences laughing and talking, and gives equal weight to both leads, who aren’t dependent on coming together but still clearly need each other. Part of that refreshing departure might be because these aren’t twenty-something’s still feeling their way out in the world but adults in their thirties well versed in the difficulties of life and in what it means to have true, honest, significant relationships. In that regard, if this is treated as a When Harry Met Sally for the new age, I certainly won’t argue the point. Always Be My Maybe should please just about everyone and hopefully represents an era of rom-coms that find a way to both satisfy and defy audience expectations.
And if you’re still on the fence, check out the song below and free yourself from any doubts.