"Bohemian Rhapsody", "Rocketman", and the Allure of Music Biopics
I know the first thing a lot of people are going to ask when they go into the theaters this week to see Rocketman, Paramount's newest 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 biopics, thanks in part to its box office success and four Academy Awards to boast.
Is it fair that Rocketman will be compared to Bohemian Rhapsody? Probably not, but if the upcoming lineup of films about music and their legendary makers 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.
At their core, however, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman are as different as the artists they represent. They may deal with similar themes, and when we compare the personalities, artistry, and inner demons of performers like Freddie Mercury and Elton John there are common threads.
Loud, colorful and entertaining, both films peel back the legacy of two flamboyant showmen and brilliant, if not broken, artists in Freddie Mercury and Elton John.
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, fame, and fortune, and it's not all sequences and "ay-oh's".
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 defined or boxed in by anyone.
Rocketman is more of an artist's Master Class and playlist of the kind fear and self-abuse that influenced Elton John’s music.
In Bohemian, we aren't 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 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.
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 effectively.
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. The narrative distance fits the story, 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 or Freddie Mercury was ever subtle.
Rocketman shows us the drugs, the overdoses, and the sexual encounters. It doesn't shy away from the brilliance of his on-stage persona or the pain of his off-stage battles either. It reminds everyone that fame itself can be a drug that leaves even the greatest showmen feeling empty and alone.
After all, what benefit is it to the man or artist who has millions of fans who sing his songs and chant his name but not a friend to bear his soul to or admit he is just as afraid, alone, and human as the rest of us?
As far as story is concerned, both films open with a central moment in the careers 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 costume throws open the doors leading straight to rehab.
Here for the first time, the man (not the legend) discusses the rollercoaster that led him to becoming Elton John, in all its pain and glory.
Using personal confessions and show-stopping musical numbers, Rocketman gives us a deeper look into the mind of a shy, fragile boy and how he became the larger-than-life 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 in Pinner.
Unfortunately, Reginald Dwight was a product of two parents who never loved him as a son or embraced him as an artist. And it was this rejection that stuck with him well into his adult life as he sought purpose and fulfillment in sex, drugs, music, fame, and a lifetime of opulence and self-indulgence.
Sadly, it takes an overdose and period of abject loneliness for Elton John, like Freddie Mercury, to realize that actions do have consequences and those things do not satisfy the innate yearning we all have for meaning and purpose.
Like Freddie Mercury, the film version of Elton John comes to a point where he has to choose how much power the drugs, addictions, and voices in his life will have over him.
There will always be people who love us and challenge us to 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 his wife Mary Austin and fellow bandmates in Queen. But sometimes, even the best of us can push aside the good when the promises of fame and fortune, not to mention sin, are too tempting to resist.
Elton John had plenty of voices that tore his life apart as much as the drugs, alcohol, and sex addiction. It took years of heartache, pain, and substance abuse for him to realize that he couldn’t control who loved him and who didn’t. He couldn’t make his parents love him. He was as much an addict of self-loathing 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.
Though neither Freddie or Elton John came to the ultimate, eternal realization, as far as we know, their stories should serve as a bit of a cautionary tale, pointing to the question once asked, "for what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?" (Matthew 16:26)
As the author of Ecclesiastes discovered, you can have everything in the world and still have nothing. For in the end, all is meaningless apart from the true fulfillment that comes from meaningful relationships, an understanding of one's purpose, and a relationship with one's Creator.
There are pitfalls to fame and fortune and even more to be lost to self-indulgence and substance abuse than can be gained. Both Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman grapple with this theme. The music in both is phenomenal (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 beyond the on-stage personas to the frightened, fragile humans beneath.
There is something fascinating about biopics and stories of famous figures, larger-than-life personas, and rockstars. They is an allure to their grandeur, confidence, and swagger, but there is also something deeply humbling about the struggles of those we idolize and consider stars and icons. In the end, beyond the flashing lights and crazy costumes, artists like Elton John or Freddie Mercury are just amplified versions of ourselves.
They may sing better than us, wear more colorful costumes, and have an audience of millions, but on the inside, they have the same fears and desires.
They too are searching for love and wholeness, and on the outside, they wear masks to cover their pain. Theirs just have more rhinestones and feathers than ours.
But what did you think?
Should we view Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman as a collective love song to fans and music lovers around the world, or do they serve more as cautionary tales on the pitfalls of fame and fortune? Perhaps both. I'll let you be the judge.
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