I was a bit bummed when I found myself in a nosebleed seat for Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John biopic, Rocketman — Piano Man would have been a better title, but then that’s a Billy Joel song — but it turned out for the good. The film is crammed with songs and it felt like watching a live concert from… a nosebleed seat. The music is why the movie exists. That would seem a redundant statement while discussing a musician’s story, but in this ho-hum movie, the glittery musical parts are the only ones that work. They get you going. They give you gooseflesh when you see the skeleton of a tune being played and you recognise the song. And why not! This isn’t the schmaltzy latter-day Elton of Nikita and Sacrifice and, heaven forbid, Can You Feel the Love Tonight. This is the early catalogue: The Bitch is Back and Crocodile Rock and buh-buh-buh-buh Bennie and the Jets.
Elton John’s 1970s music is made for the movies. Flashback alert. There’s Elton himself, playing the pinball wizard (and stopping the show with The Who’s Pinball Wizard) in Tommy. There’s Ewan McGregor serenading Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge with Your Song, a moment so rapturous I felt my heart would burst through my ribcage when I first saw it in a theatre. There’s the rock band reconciling after a nasty fight by singing along to Tiny Dancer, in a tour bus, in Almost Famous. Elton John’s music is like Elton John’s wardrobe: stunningly larger-than-life. The first time we see him (he’s played by a not-bad Taron Egerton), he’s in an orange jumpsuit with bell-bottom flares, a sequined cap with horns, and crimson wings that unfurl behind him as though they were flags of his own little country: Eltonia.
The writing is that basic. It’s the screenplay equivalent of pressing PLAY in order to get a track going
After this fantastically freakish visual, we settle into a laundry-list narrative that dully ticks off points from a life. The framing device is that of Elton spilling his guts out to a group of addicts in a rehab clinic. (He’s there because his problem areas include alcohol, sex, cocaine, anger management and… shopping.) The counselor asks, “What were you like as a child, Elton?” The writing is that basic. It’s the screenplay equivalent of pressing PLAY in order to get a track going. PLAY Early Childhood. PLAY Scene that Establishes Daddy Issues. PLAY Prodigious Musical Talent. PLAY Sage Advice From Industry Senior. (“You have to kill the person you were born in order to be the person you ought to be.”) PLAY Signing a Record Contract and Success and Fall and Redemption. PLAY End Credits. In this biopic, there’s only volume. No vision.
The trouble is that, instead of focusing on one track — like the longtime friendship and creative partnership between Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) — Rocketman wants it all. And the man is blotted out by all the bling. There are a few nice non-musical scenes. There’s a very relaxed and funny coming-out moment. (The film, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from depicting gay sex.) There’s a stretch of breathtaking cruelty, involving Elton’s father and an LP he wants autographed. But the film’s central conceit — that Elton John just wanted to be loved — is too thin and mopey to sustain a life. The idea is for the audience to feel sorry for him, but I quickly became annoyed with the poor little rich boy who feels sorry for himself. (The drugs and booze scenes go on and on, making the film’s mid-section play like an endless pity party.) I wanted to tell him to get into a good mood pronto, and here’s how to do it: Play an Elton John song.
Mati Diop’s first feature, Atlantique, is that rare thing: a historic event (it’s the first film directed by a black woman to be part of the main Competition section, in the festival’s 72-year history), as well as a damn good movie. It’s a riff on her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973), generally known as the first avant-garde film from Africa. That film centered on a Senegalese couple whose dream is to leave behind the poverty of their homes in Dakar and escape to Paris. Atlantique, too, revolves around a group of Senegalese men trying to flee to Europe. But this time, it isn’t a dream. It’s dire need. The locals involved in the construction of a giant sea-facing residential tower for the elite haven’t been paid in three months. It’s time to look towards greener pastures. Or bluer ones. The escape route is, after all, the sea.
Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) is one of those workers, and he knows he’s leaving. Look at the way he takes leave of Ada (Mama Sané), the woman he loves. He gives her his chain. He keeps calling her back for a kiss, and she can’t see why because she’s got to go now and she will be meeting him again anyway. But she doesn’t know Souleiman’s plans. Diop, somewhat frustratingly, doesn’t join all the dots. (Narrative coherence isn’t this film’s strong suit.) Why, for instance, doesn’t Souleiman tell Ada? And how did Ada come to be engaged to Omar, a man far above her social class? It occurred to me that this soapy triangle wouldn’t be out of place in an Indian movie. Nor would Ada’s father, who, when disappointed in Ada, tells his wife, “If you had brought her up well, none of this would have happened”. Omar’s parents even order a virginity test.
But then we get the masterstroke, a twist. A narrative that seemed to be heading towards the resolution of Ada’s love life (and a commentary on the migrant crisis) suddenly gets possessed by spirits. Atlantique becomes a ghost story. Is Souleiman back? Is he the one who set fire to Ada’s bridal chamber? Yes, according to the local cop, Issa (Amadou Mbow), who is convinced Ada holds the answers. But midway through questioning her, he begins to sweat. It isn’t just the heat. It’s an illness. And others are beginning to show symptoms as well: fever and glassy eyes. Has Souleiman died at sea? Or is he, along with the men he left with, back? To reveal more is a crime. Suffice to say that the rest of Atlantique is as haunting and atmospheric as Fatima Al Qadiri’s superb score, with hints of dissonance that creep into the bone. Instead of making an obviously political film around a burning issue, Diop allows its implications to cloud the air like incense. Atlantique is an intoxicating fever-dream.