What Makes "Rocketman", "Bohemian Rhapsody", and Other Music Biopics Soar
Updated: Apr 8
The first thing a lot of people will ask when they go into the theaters to watch Rocketman, Paramount's new Elton John biopic, is “is it as good as Bohemian Rhapsody?” It’s as if Bohemian Rhapsody has now become the standard for all future music biopics, thanks in part to its box office success, performances, and four Academy Awards to boast.
Is it fair that Rocketman is compared to Bohemian Rhapsody? Probably not, but if the upcoming lineup of films about music and their makers (The Dirt, Rocketman, Yesterday, and Blinded by the Light) were all acts at Live Aid, Bohemian Rhapsody would be the first to take the stage, and in true Freddie Mercury fashion, it set the bar rather high.
To be fair, I don't know how well Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman will stand the test of time. Rami Malek's portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury is captivating, as is Taron Egerton's, but at times, even they feel more like impressions of famous figures more than nuanced performances.
At their core, however, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman are as different as the artists they represent. It would be pointless to try and compare the voice of Freddie Mercury to Elton John or the legacy of Queen to the musical impact of Elton John's music and Bernie Taupin's lyrics as a means of determining which one was “better.”
Both are entertaining-enough films that crack open the legacy and music of showmen and brilliant, if not broken, artists in Freddie Mercury and Elton John.
Each film has its strengths and weaknesses, as do their artists. But like their artists, each film owns its respective stage and leaves you walking out of the theater with a new perspective on what life looks like beyond the glitz and glamor of show business and fame, and it's not all sequences and "ay-oh's".
So what separates two films about two remarkably similar artists in regards to their
fame, lavish lifestyles, and personal struggles?
Bohemian Rhapsody is a portrait of the musical journey of Freddie Mercury and Queen. It is as much a story of artists as family as it is a chronicle of the rise, fall, resurgence, and tragic demise of one of music’s most passionate voices, a man who refused to be boxed in.
Rocketman is more of a mental playlist of the artist and a musical Master Class on the fear, self-abuse, and emotional journey that inspired Elton John’s art.
In Bohemian, we are never given much insight into the mind and meaning behind Queen’s music, save for a few songs. We get the product with a few sprinkles of the process throughout.
The directorial choices of the film make us feel like we’ve been given front row seats to Queen’s musical journey, but there is a certain narrative distance to all of it. At times the film can feel intimate and personal and other times spectacular and grand. I think this is a big reason why Bohemian Rhapsody took home the Oscar for Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. The film balances Freddie’s larger-than-life on-stage persona with his quieter private life quite beautifully.
Bohemian Rhapsody is an emotional blend of rock anthem and love ballad - We Are the Champions and Love of My Life. Its pacing is perfect, and it builds to a crescendo to Live Aid, a triumph filmmaking as much as it was a marker moment in the history of rock and roll.
If literary terminology translated to cinematography, we would say that Bohemian is shot in more of a limited third-person point of view. That narrative distance fits that story and the direction of the filmmakers, whereas Rocketman takes us into a more first-person narrative as told by Elton John himself.
As the tagline of Rocketman states, “in order to know his story, you have to live his fantasy.” In Rocketman, we do just that, and it's not always the prettiest ride.
Like any great Broadway production or show stopping musical, Rocketman is as loud, flashy, colorful, and bombastic as Elton John’s iconic wardrobe. The film's subject matter and scene work is nowhere near as subtle as moments in Freddie’s life as shown (or not shown) in Bohemian Rhapsody, but then again, nothing about Elton John is or was very subtle.
Rocketman shows us the drugs, the overdoses, and the sexual encounters through the mind of Elton John. It doesn't shy away from the brilliance of his on-stage persona or the pain of his off-stage battles either. And it reminds everyone that fame itself can be a drug that leaves even the greatest showmen feeling empty and alone.
The filmmakers choose a narrative style, visual aesthetic, sound design, and story structure to fit the man and the themes of his life.
As far as story is concerned, both films open with a central moment in the lives of Freddie Mercury and Elton John. But where Bohemian Rhapsody is narratively crafted to the build up to Live Aid, arguably Queen’s most memorable performance, in Rocketman, the always flamboyant Elton John, wearing orange rhinestone-studded wings, platform shoes, and a devilish ensemble throws open the doors and barges straight into rehab.
Here for the first time, the character discusses the rollercoaster that led him to becoming Elton John, in all its glory and pain.
Using rehab confessions and show-stopping musical numbers, we are given a deeper look into the mind of the shy boy who would become Elton Hercules John.
So much of Elton John's art was forged from emotional betrayal. We see this in his first relationship with lover and eventual manager John Reid (played by Game of Thrones alum and Bodyguard breakout Richard Madden), going all the way back to his childhood growing up in Pinner.
There, a shy Reginald Dwight first fell in love with music as the seeds of the inner musical genius were watered by his desire to become a rock star and longing to be loved by his parents. Unfortunately, Reginald Dwight was a product of two parents who never loved, accepted, or embraced him as an artist or even as a son. And it was this rejection that stuck with him well into his adult life as he sought to fill the void with sex, drugs, music, and opulence.
It sadly takes an overdose and an encounter with abject loneliness for Elton John, like Freddie Mercury, to realize that actions do have consequences. And like Freddie Mercury, the film version of Elton John also comes to a point where he has to choose how much power the drugs and negative voices in his life will have over him.
There are always people championing us to grow and be better. Elton had this in his writing partner and lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who loved him like a brother. Freddie Mercury had the support of wife Mary Austin and fellow bandmates in Queen. But sometimes, even the best of us can push aside the good when the alluring (though empty) promises of sin prove too tempting to resist.
Elton John had plenty of negative voices that tore apart his life as much as the drugs, alcohol, and sex addiction. It took years of heartache, pain, brokenness, and battles with addiction for Elton John to realize that he couldn’t control who loved him and who didn’t. He couldn’t make his parents accept him as a musician or as a son they never seemed to want. He was as much an addict of self-hate as he was drugs and alcohol. But as he says in the film, “I just want to get better."
That is a process the real artist is still living out today.
In the shadow of Bohemian Rhapsody’s success, the filmmakers of Rocketman does not wither. They stuck to their story and gave us an equally powerful and poignant tale of art, fame, brokenness, and emptiness.
There are narrative similarities to Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. The themes of both films compliment each other well. The music is phenomenal in both (to no one’s surprise). The costuming is spot on. The direction is masterful at times and jaw-dropping in others. And the performances of Rami Malek and Taron Edgerton are what help us see past the on-stage personas to the frightened, fragile humans beneath.
Musicals and stories about musicians are not going anywhere. We find hope in stories about artists because we see ourselves in their genuine human struggle. Artists like Elton John or Freddie Mercury are just amplified versions of ourselves.
They may sing better than us and stand before millions of people, but inside, they have similar desires, longings, and emotional needs as the rest of us. They too need saving, and on the outside, they too wear masks to cover their pain. There's just have more rhinestones and feathers than ours.
For those who love Elton John’s music, the story of the artist and the heart that went into his greatest hits will be a love song to fans across the world. But for those fans who, like me, didn’t know much of Elton John’s music prior to the film, his story and the themes of the film can serve as both a warning and encouragement.
As Elton John sang, "my gift is my song, and this one's for you." Maybe the same is true of Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and other films like it. You'll just have to watch it and decide for yourself.
Until then... thank you for stopping by. As always, if you liked this post, hit, tap, or smash the heart icon below, subscribe if you loved it, and feel free to send this review or any of my perspectives to someone you know.
Until Today, Singers and Songwriters