Why "Rocketman", "Bohemian Rhapsody", and Music Biopics Soar
Updated: 6 days ago
The first thing a lot of people are going to ask when they go into the theaters to watch Rocketman, Paramount's fantastical 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 massive box office success, amazing performances, and four Academy Awards to boast. Is it fair that Rocketman is inevitably going to be compared to Bohemian Rhapsody? Probably not, but if the upcoming lineup of films about music and their makers, such as The Dirt, Rocketman, Yesterday, and Blinded by the Light, were all acts at Live Aid, Bohemian Rhapsody would be the first one to have taken the stage, and in true Freddie Mercury fashion, it set the bar very high.
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.” Michael Jackson or The Beatles? Mozart or Beethoven? These are debates that have no winner. Each should be enjoyed, studied, and respected for their musical genius and left at that. I think the same can be argued for Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman.
Both are beautiful films that celebrate the legacy and music of incredible showmen and brilliant, if not broken, artists in Freddie Mercury and Elton John. Each film has its strengths and weaknesses, as do the artists. But like their artists, each film owns its respective stage and leaves you walking out of the theater singing and soaring.
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, and resurgence of one of music’s most passionate voices, a man who refused to be boxed in or defined as any one thing. Rocketman, however, is more of a mental playlist of the artist and a musical Master Class of the emotions, inspiration, and the how and why behind 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 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, which is a triumph of 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. 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 subtle. Rocketman shows us the drugs, the overdose, 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 battle.
The filmmakers chose a narrative style, visual aesthetic, sound design, and story structure to fit the man and the themes of his life. And it works.
This film is loud! Make no mistake. It's a two-hour onslaught of color, sound, and narrative free falls that can feel overwhelming at times. My one criticism then is that the film is cranked up to an aesthetic and experiential ten. I wanted moments to just stop and catch my breath or give my eyes a rest, but then again, I'm an old soul, so I'm sure others will be fine.
As far as story is concerned, both films open with a chosen central moment in the lives of Freddie and Elton John. But where Bohemian Rhapsody is narratively crafted to the build up to Live Aid, arguably Queen’s most memorable performance and one of the greatest rock performances of all time, in Rocketman, the always flamboyant Elton John, wearing orange rhinestone-studded wings, platform shoes, and a devilish ensemble as bold and brilliant as anything we’ve come seen from him, throws open the doors and barges straight into… rehab. Here for the first time, the character discusses the path that led him to becoming Elton John, with all its glory, fame, brokenness, and shame.
Using rehab narration, show-stopping musical numbers, and an absolutely mesmerizing performance from Taron Egerton, we are given a deeper look into the mind and milestones of the shy boy who would become Elton Hercules John.
While I’m on the subject of Egerton’s performance, let me just say that I was blown away. No shade to Rami Malek, but the fact that Egerton was able to sing most of Elton John’s music and sound convincingly like him is a testament to his raw talent and the preparation that went into the role. There were moments in the theater where our audience started clapping after certain songs, particularly the creation of "Your Song." Even Elton John (the real Elton John) has gone so far as to praise the young Welsh actor, inviting him on stage on numerous occasions to sing with him at the piano. Wow!
Anytime you’re portraying a real person, you have a million choices to make as an actor and even more responsibility to get it right. Striking a balance between an authentic portrayal without falling into an impression is really tough. I can’t imagine having to do it with Elton John watching you play him the entire time. Taron Egerton, however, absolutely nails it. His performance is whimsical, honest, nuanced, and deeply grounded in Elton John’s style and hidden struggles. We get to see the transition between Elton John the showman and the backstage, broken addict struggling to keep it all together. Egerton balances the big persona with the broken-hearted artist masterfully.
A part of me wished this movie would have been released later in the Fall. I would be really curious to see if the studio would campaign as hard for an Oscar nom for Egerton as they had for Rami Malek. It could still happen. Unfortunately, May releases are often brushed over for big acting awards. It’s a shame, really. But let’s see how the film does overall and what happens next February.
When it comes to Elton John, so much of Elton’s art was forged from pain and emotional betrayal. We see this in his first relationship with lover and eventual manager John Reid (played by Game of Thrones alumni 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, who would never understand or embrace the boy he was or the man he would become.
In many ways, this movie deals with a prevalent theme for the arts. Parents of artists are like foster parents to their child’s creativity. How they care for, nurture, and support that creativity will influence the artist their children become. Elton John was a product of two parents who never loved, accepted, or embraced him as an artist or even as a son. This rejection stuck with him well into his adult life as he sought to be loved in ways he never was as a boy. Thankfully, John was able to push through his pain and turn it into musical poetry, with help from best friend and lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). But the inner pain and rejection felt by Reggie Dwight was always hiding beneath the wild costumes and dazzling showmanship of Elton John.
As one of Elton’s first musical mentors tells him early in the movie, “you gotta kill the person you were born to be to become the person you wanna to be.”
This is very much a theme of Rocketman, which Elton accepts by the end of the film and seems to be sharing with his audience. Never let yourself be defined by someone else’s limited perception of who they think you are or want you to be. Reginald Dwight chooses to become Elton John as the artist steps into the spotlight and past the shy boy, shattering the mold of what a rock star should sound and look like.
At one point in the movie, a young Reggie Dwight asks his father early in the film, “when are you going to hug me?” I know. It rips my heart out just writing about it. In the climax of the film, in a dreamlike reflection, the same child asks an adult Elton John the same question. “Aren’t you going to hug me?” Cue the tears and bust out the tissues. Nothing was wrong with little Reggie Dwight, and I don't think Elton John ever rejected Reggie. But he had to learn to love the little boy inside, in all his brokenness, insecurity, and fear.
Like Freddie Mercury, the film version of Elton John also comes to a point in his journey where he has to choose how much power the people in his life will have over him. This is a message for the artist in all of us.
There are positive voices championing us to share our love and talent with the world. Elton had this in his writing partner and lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who always loved him like a brother. Freddie Mercury had the support of wife Mary Austin and a family in Queen. But sometimes, even the best of us can push aside the good when the negative voices become louder and more powerful than the positive.
Elton John had plenty of negative voices that tore apart his life as much as the drugs, alcohol, and sex addiction. At his core, though, he wasn’t that different than the rest of us. He just wanted to be loved, and not by millions of people, but by those who genuinely knew him. Don't we all want the same?
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, as a homosexual, or as a son they never seemed to want. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn't his fault that John Reid, who he thought had loved him, used and abused him. As Elenor Roosevelt said, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Elton John was as much an addict of self-hate as he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. But as he says in the film, “I want to get better.” Don’t we all.
In the shadow of Bohemian Rhapsody’s success, the filmmakers of Rocketman did not wither. They stuck to their story and gave us an equally powerful and poignant tale of art and the heart of the artist.
There are narrative similarities to Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. The character journeys are similar in places. 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 incredible performances of Rami Malek and Taron Edgerton is what acting is all about.
Bohemian Rhapsody. Rocketman. Yesterday. More films about music and those who make it are on their way. But these aren’t the first music biopic to make an impression on audiences and leave us wanting more. Walk the Line (2006) earned Reese Witherspoon an Oscar. Ray (2004) gave us the chance to hear Ray Charles’s voice once again. And Straight Outta Compton (2015) became a cultural phenomenon no one knew we needed until we did. Movies and music have partnered together for the last hundred years to create magic in ways few genres of story can.
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 have more talent in certain areas and stand before millions of people, but inside, they too have the same desires, human longings, and emotional needs as the rest of us. On the outside, they too wear masks to cover their pain. There's just have more rhinestones, feathers, and colors 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 have the power to connect to the artist in all of us. His gift was his songs, and this movie, like his music, belongs to you.
Until Today, Storytellers