Last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody scooped up awards and re- introduced the world to the wonders of Queen, a British rock band fronted by a flamboyant, homosexual British singer and piano player who battled addiction and died of AIDS.
This year’s Rocketman aims to re-invigorate your love of Elton John, a flamboyant, homosexual British singer and piano player who battled addiction and, stunningly, did not die of AIDS.
Both characters faced unsympathetic parents, rejection from record labels, and closeted homosexuality. Both had sexual relationships with conniving dirt bags who fucked over their talented paramours. Both films feature the leads’ relationships with their co- writers as essential in pulling them out of their personal hells.
Despite similar themes and backstories, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman are two very different movies. If you like movies, you’ll go for Bohemian Rhapsody. If you like music and live performances, you’ll probably favor Rocketman. Either way, these films’ commercial success means more treats for us: coming attractions Yesterday, Blinded by the Light and Wild Rose tell stories about making music.
Bohemian Rhapsody follows traditional biopic structure. Queen songs are performed in chronological order. Rami Malek is an actor’s actor, lip syncing and embodying the anxiety and discomfort of a musical genius uncomfortable in his own skin. Freddie’s tragic demise makes Bohemian Rhapsody a little more emotionally affecting. Everybody remembers Freddie Mercury died of AIDS. The part where a fan sings to Freddie at the AIDS clinic gives me chills.
Rocketman bursts from the womb pre-packaged for Broadway. It’s a jukebox musical, using songs to demonstrate themes in Elton’s life. Baby Reg sings “The Bitch Is Back”, “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” scores Elton’s bar circuit in England, and Elton hits a low point during “Bennie and the Jets” (obviously). Almost every song gets a choreographed group dance and/ or montage, with the exception of “Your Song”. The film presents Elton John’s first hit with zero glitz, featuring a bathrobe- clad Elton at the upright in his mum’s house, Bernie Taupin sweetly brushing his teeth upstairs. Rocketman knows when to hold and throw the glitter.
Taron Egerton did all his over singing for revamped versions of Elton John’s songs, which all the characters sing; Bohemian Rhapsody uses high- fidelity re- recordings. I know Taron won’t get any statues for singing, but I think he should.
Elton’s delectable costumes get more and more elaborate the more detached he becomes from reality. In the sober circle, he sheds layers of a bedazzled orange demon costume until he’s wearing nothing but a dingy bathrobe. (Elton wears a lot of bathrobes in this film). Here, he finally finds peace with himself.
One has to acknowledge Elton John’s heavy hand in producing Rocketman. Rocketman seems determined to feed a brand. With Elton on his “last” world tour, a Broadway show seems inevitable. Rocketman’s ending feels sloppy and abrupt, maybe because Elton John is still alive. “Elton John has been sober for 28 years and counting”, reads the closing frame. Then, credits roll over a fancy Power Point presentation of Actual Elton. I really enjoyed seeing archival footage side- by- side with stills from the film. You can really see how the cast and crew fantasized Elton’s life for dramatic effect. Rocketman told the story of Elton’s life, but it also artistically showed the interconnectivity of the root causes of Elton’s addiction.
Actual Elton does get a happy ending- he gets clean, the Queen of England knights him, and he stays a billionaire. To be honest, I never knew Elton John had a drug problem because he’s been sober for as long as I’ve been alive.
“It’s a wonder he didn’t die of AIDS,” said my mother as he exited the theater. “I think he lied about fucking everything that moves.”