Cannes 2019: I’ve just seen Rocketman, the Elton John biopic. It’s a hoot

Cannes diary: Jim Jarmusch, plus Sorry We Missed You, Bacurau and Les Misérables

Elton John and Taron Egerton who plays the role of Elton in new bipoic 'Rocketman' performed a duet at a party following the premiere of the movie in Cannes. Courtesy: Paramount Pictures


Everbody’s taking about...

Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Gemma Jones, Bryce Dallas Howard, Steven Mackintosh. In competition

Cannes 2019: Taron Egerton as Elton John, Bryce Dallas Howard as his mother, and Richard Madden as John Reid in Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher
Cannes 2019: Taron Egerton as Elton John, Bryce Dallas Howard as his mother, and Richard Madden as John Reid in Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher

A hearty surge of affection shot around Cannes on Thursday night as Elton John, wearing heart-shaped glasses, ascended the steps for the premiere of Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman. There was also some concern. If it went badly Elton might well throw one of his famous strops. 

Happily, the film has gone down a storm. Dexter Fletcher, who did tidy-up work on Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was defenestrated, has confirmed the potential of earlier films such as Wild Bill and Sunshine on Leith with a delightful, sometimes fantastical musical that makes fine use of Elton’s most admired songs. The thing is an absolute hoot.

In contrast to the by-the-numbers Queen movie, Rocketman plays very much like a musical of the old school. The hits are staged as elaborate song-and-dance routines that spring spontaneously from the action.

Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, for instance, bursts out when Reggie Dwight, still just a kid from Pinner, is entertaining the locals at the pub piano. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me arrives as a duet between the older Elton (as Reg became) and his future wife.

Taron Egerton, so good in Fletcher’s Eddie the Eagle, makes a comic turn of a man who, despite well-documented crises, would be hard to play as a figure from Ibsen. He sings the songs well enough. He gets the suburban speaking vowels convincingly. Bryce Dallas Howard has fun as Elton’s permanently unimpressed mum. Jamie Bell makes a sensible northern cowboy of Bernie Taupin, Elton’s lyricist. 

The journey up is more fun than the familiar slump (not just from this story) into drink’n’drugs hell. Fletcher creates lovely semi-idealised images of London in the 1950s and 1960s: a walk down Denmark Street; the quiet desperation of petit-bourgeois life.

The latter sections are hampered not just by their familiarity – you just know something chemical will happen around a swimming pool – but also by the certain knowledge that, although Elton pulls himself together, we’re not heading to any proper revival of the career.

Let’s be frank. Nobody wants to hear much of his work after 1978.

Opinions will differ on the sex scenes. They do not count as coy, exactly. Elton and his untrustworthy Scottish manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), get a full-on roger to the early album track Take Me to the Pilot. But those expecting a full-on erotic spectacle will be in for a disappointment.

There was amused gasping as the film ended with a version of Russell Mulcahy’s video for I’m Still Standing, shot just metres from where the film was unspooling. That probably helped lengthen an already enormous standing ovation. 

Properly good fun.

Jim misses the old Cannes

To a well-tended lawn a few hundred metres from the Mediterranean for a conversation with Jim Jarmusch about this and that. The American film director, unmistakable with his shock-white hair and prescription shades, is sort of Cannes royalty. He won the Camera d’Or here 35 years ago, for Stranger than Paradise.

“Not royalty!” he says to me.

The republican equivalent, then. How has the festival changed since then?

“Cannes has gotten more staid and a little less vulgar,” he says. “But I liked the vulgarity. I like contradiction. I remember being in Cannes in the 1980s, and I’d see some magnificent Romanian film and I’d come out into the sun and there’d be a naked girl descending on a parachute into a circle of paparazzi. That was kind of amazing. That’s gone.”

He is still here. The Dead Don’t Die, featuring Selena Gomez, Bill Murray and many, many others, just opened the whole blasted festival.

“As far as the film world goes, the same corporate overlords have sucked it all up, and it’s harder than ever to get financing,” he says, sighing. “Even with this cast. They were paid with oatmeal. Ha ha! They did it because we are a tribe. But that didn’t impress anyone. They looked at the analysis and said, ‘The worldwide analysis is the box office is $5 million.’”

It’s a duller world in many ways.

Critics whine about screening changes

Allow us a little more inside-baseball talk, as the Americans say. Nobody reading the reviews will notice, but there has been a big change in the structure of the press screenings. Forever, Cannes has been a place of early starts. The first screening has traditionally been at 8.30am. Journos spent the whole time complaining about moving in a state of bleary-eyed zombification. Those screenings still happen, but they are no longer essential. (Don’t make me explain why.) Now everyone is complaining about having to stay up late for screenings. Why can’t they just beam the films straight into our poor brains?

The master of horror gets a Golden Coach

John Carpenter has been honoured at Directors’ Fortnight with the presentation of its Golden Coach award at the opening of that influential strand. The director of Halloween, The Thing and Escape from Precinct 13 has long been a legendary figure among French cinephiles, and the award, in the gift of the French directors’ guild, could hardly have gone to a more deserving figure. “It’s very flattering, it’s very nice,” he said afterwards. “It’s wonderful that they recognised me. I think it’s because I’m old now.” Now 71, Carpenter went on to ponder how the genre that made his name has changed. “Horror has been with cinema since the very beginning, and every generation makes it with their own sensibilities and fears,” he told Collider. “It will always be with us, because every human being is scared. We were all born afraid. We’re afraid of our own death – every fear you have I have. It’s universal. Humour isn’t always universal. Fear is. That’s why horror is so incredible.”

Nadine Labaki returns to celebrate unexpected success

Nadine Labaki, the Lebanese director and actor, provided last year’s festival with an undoubted highlight when Capernaum broke hearts with its examination of a young boy struggling in appalling, Dickensian conditions after parting from a ghastly family. She is back to celebrate a predicated Oscar nomination and a more surprising box-office triumph. The film has taken $50 million worldwide, largely thanks to a stunning $40 million haul in China. It is now the most successful film ever from the Middle East. Labaki is this year’s president of the Un Certain Regard jury, and she took time to address Kering’s Women in Motion event. “It’s a big surprise for me,” she said, still reeling from the news. “It’s very new. And it’s happening right now!” She reckons the success is down to the universal nature of the story. “It could be about children being separated from their parents at the Mexican border in America. Or Indian children working to feed families, Syrian children dying from chemical weapons. Or children being in that same situation in China.”

Dench is in Blithe Spirit

Why has this not happened before? Among the first big announcements at Cannes 2019 is the news that Judi Dench is to star as Madame Arcati in a film version of Noël Coward’s immortal play Blithe Spirit. Edward Hall, son of the late Peter Hall, will direct a project that has already clocked up presales to territories such as New Zealand, Spain and South Africa. Dan Stevens and Isla Fisher costar in the story of a novelist who can’t escape the mischievous spirit of his late wife. The film was famously adapted by David Lean in 1945, with Margaret Rutherford in the role. Legend hands on to living legend.

Is Carax’s Annette a goer at last?

One of the great mystery projects of 2019 (or more likely 2020) has been Leos Carax’s still-unseen musical Annette. Featuring songs by the mighty Sparks, the film has been on and off schedules for aeons. Now it sounds as if Carax, whose Holy Motors wowed Cannes in 2012, is finally getting the project into gear. It was confirmed at this year’s event that Marion Cotillard will star opposite Adam Driver in a story concerning “star crossed” Hollywood lovers and that shooting will begin later this summer. Can we ink it in for next year’s Cannes? I wouldn’t get carried away. This is one of those believe-it-when-I-see-it productions.

And the rest of today’s reviews...

Sorry We Missed You
Directed by Ken Loach. Starring Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Stone, Katie Proctor, Ross Brewster. In competition

Cannes 2019: Sorry We Missed You, directed by Ken Loach
Cannes 2019: Sorry We Missed You, directed by Ken Loach

People are forever threatening retirement on Ken Loach’s behalf, but the world keeps offering him unhappy opportunities to confirm that he is still needed. Working with his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty, the great man – competing in Cannes for a record 13th time – here takes on the gig economy and the tyranny of zero-hour contracts.

It implies no disrespect to say you will have an idea of what to expect. Some of the writing is on the nose. At least one of the characters being ground beneath the boot heel is worthy of canonisation. The rigorous research is not worn lightly. But, these customary reservations noted, this remains one of the best Loach films of the past decade.

Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen), a Mancunian living in Newcastle, has struggled to get back on his feet after the economic slump a decade earlier. We begin with him signing up for work (“job” is not quite the word) with a delivery company managed by the bluff, no-nonsense Maloney (Ross Brewster). Ricky is nominally self-employed, but his entire professional life is controlled by the company and by a quietly menacing hand-held scanner. Miss too many deliveries and he’ll get fined. If he can’t find a replacement when unavailable he will get fined. He asks his long-suffering wife to sell her car, so he can buy a van, and slips into new forms of exploitation.

Loach and Laverty have been careful to focus on a family that, by some standards, is not doing too badly. (Somewhere a little worse off than the “squeezed middle”, perhaps.) Both parents are in work. The bills are being paid. Abby (Debbie Honeywood), Ricky’s wife, works as a care assistant for elderly and chronically ill people whom she is required, much to her distaste, to call “clients”.

It is giving nothing away to reveal that Ricky soon finds himself up to his neck in debt and worry. The two kids break down in different ways: the younger, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), becomes nervy; the older, Seb (Rhys Stone), gets in trouble at school and, ultimately, with the law. The older actors are rooted and connected. The younger actors, both previously amateurs, are off-the-chart excellent. Proctor, in particular, is stunning as the canary whose emotional decay signals danger in the coal mine.

Yes, this is just one case, and it does not stand for all. True, Loach loads the dice just a little by making Abby the most wonderful person in Newcastle. But there are such people, and the film-makers speak up for them with great power. The unexpected surge of tragic strings at the close does not feel unearned.

Loach could become the first director to win three Palmes d’Or.

Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles. Starring Sonia Braga, Udo Kier, Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Perera, Thardelly Lima, Rubens Santos, Wilson Rabelo, Carlos Francisco, Luciana Souza. In competition

Cannes 2019: Bacurau, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Cannes 2019: Bacurau, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles

One innocuous line generated an audible murmur from the otherwise silent audience during the screening of Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s stubbornly bizarre combination of cinephile exploitation and robust social commentary. Sonia Braga, gallantly playing an angry elder matriarch, is sitting in the jungle drinking cashew milk while listening to True by Spandau Ballet. “American music!” she tells a visitor. You what? Is a point being made about globalisation? Is this just a tantalising deliberate error?

That is the least of the mysteries in a film that never backs off from the strange or the revolting. The story concerns a town in the Brazilian interior that finds itself mysteriously erased from all the records. We assume this is the doing of a comical politician who promises the inhabitants everything except the basic utilities they require. We assume he is also behind the cabal of foreigners – led by Udo Kier, no less – who are hunting them for sport.

From the outset it is clear we are in a netherworld of VHS bloodletting and postcolonial academics. (Director of the very different Aquarius, Mendonça is also a distinguished high-brow critic.) Anybody in the overlap of those Venn diagrams is sure to have a blast. The film both investigates ignored rural communities and exploits preconceptions about those rural Brazilian cultures. Psychotropic drugs are taken before combat. Their avenger dresses like a Mexican wrestler. And so on.

Bacurau does occasionally make too hearty an embrace of chaos. But the delicious visuals entertain throughout: flashy wipes, bold 1970s wipes, eccentric zooms to throbbing electronics. I have divided feelings about the lack of booing at the end of the screening. Obviously, it’s good that the idiots kept silent for once. But it’s disappointing because, with this sort of movie, booing at Cannes is almost an endorsement.

Les Misérables
Directed by Ladj Ly. Starring Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Steve Tientcheu, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly, Almamy Kanoute, Raymond Lopez, Jeanne Balibar

Cannes 2019: Les Misérables, directed by Ladj Ly
Cannes 2019: Les Misérables, directed by Ladj Ly

You will want to know what Ladj Ly’s first fiction film, after a fecund career in online docs, has to do with the Victor Hugo novel that spawned a musical empire. The brilliant opening section might suggest the links are purely thematic. It is the day France won the World Cup, and our young heroes from the suburbs are out celebrating in the city. The sequence ends with tricolours being waved at the Arc de Triomphe. Can you hear the people sing…? And so on.

There is a more direct connection. Montfermeil, site of the clashes between local residents and the cynical police that make up the film’s main body, is the town where Victor Hugo conceived the novel, and, as we are told in an early sequence, the odd Gavroche and the odd Cosette are still about the place. This is, however, now largely a community of immigrants.

Ladj Ly, who is from the area, includes interesting references to the role of the Muslim faith in the community, but Les Misérables is, perhaps surprisingly, mostly concerned with the doings of three police officers caught up in rolling mayhem. A lion cub is stolen. A drone is recording everyone’s movement. A crisis eventually threatens to elevate the chaos.

There are inevitable reminders of Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (now nearly a quarter of a century old). The film is not quite so stylish. It does not have the resonance. But it cannot be faulted for its engagement with a crucial fault line in French society. Les Misérables is all about race and how moral compromises increase tensions and harbour mistrust. The performances crackle. The music throbs. The anger surges.

A gripping entertainment with a palpable soul.

Cannes 2019

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