How Rocketman's ambition exceeds Bohemian Rhapsody's sanitized view of rock history
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018 movie)
Hollywood’s got a case of rock fever with a recent string of biopics and rock-infused projects coming down the pipeline – but none share quite as much DNA as this spring’s Rocketman and last fall’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
In both films, Dexter Fletcher directs a music-fueled tale of the larger-than-life stories of two 1970s rock stars, Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) and Elton John (Taron Egerton). Fletcher took over the reins on Bohemian Rhapsody after initial director Bryan Singer was dismissed from the project.
But while Bohemian Rhapsody is a sanitized run-of-the-mill rock biopic that plays like a Shazam session of Queen’s greatest hits, Rocketman is an unabashed candy-colored, drug-fueled musical romp – one that, while not always successful, is incredibly ambitious in its scope. More true to its lead, often unflinchingly so, Rocketman offers up a biopic with heaps of directorial vision and a refreshing reluctance to mask and manipulate its main character’s sexuality.
Though more surrealist in approach, Rocketman possesses an honesty Bohemian Rhapsody often lacks. Many of Bohemian Rhapsody’s detractors have already pointed out how neutered the story is – it makes reference to Mercury’s sexuality and includes his life partner Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) very peripherally in the narrative, but it never really goes there. The drug use and hedonistic lifestyle one would expect of rock stars are swept under the rug to make Mercury more family-friendly and his fellow bandmates nearly saintly paragons of virtue.
In contrast, Rocketman is all sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll with a capital “S” and “D.” There’s no question there’s still some bias here (John sanctioned the film after all and has a professional relationship with screenwriter Lee Hall), but it’s unabashedly more of a “warts and all” take on things, making it feel more authentic. It plays a bit fast and loose with timelines for dramatic emphasis, but there’s nothing quite so egregious as moving Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis up by a full two years to emotionally manipulate the climactic Live Aid performance into a “show must go on” moment that cheapens the real concert’s place in rock history.
By many accounts, commitment to a more uncompromising narrative was largely at John’s behest. But what truly makes Rocketman stand apart from Bohemian Rhapsody is Fletcher’s musical vision for the project (and screenwriter Lee Hall’s script that offered the foundation for it). It’s hard to knock Bohemian Rhapsody for lacking a directorial point-of-view given all the behind-the-scenes drama there, but it’s an undeniable factor in the projects’ artistic successes and failures.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a more traditional biopic, laying songs into the story as moments of performance as characters write and record them. We ping through the Queen catalog, with a fun glimpse at how the music was made, but the musical numbers are more about recreating a sense of Queen’s performances as they were, rather than offering up anything dramatically motivated.
Rocketman takes an entirely different approach, turning to Elton John’s discography for inspiration for musicalized storytelling. Young Elton plays the piano for onlookers, but then he’s jumping through a bar window and doing rockabilly-infused choreography with a cavalcade of back-up dancers as if he’s “rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong”-ing his way into the closing number of Grease. Once he hits the big-time, several years of his rise to success and descent into drug-use and an ego-fueled mania are told through a single number, “Honky Cat,” which he sings with lover/manager John Reid (Richard Madden).
Fletcher uses the form of the cinematic musical to explore the tragedies and triumphs of John’s life – and the entire company of players from his mother (an effectively spiky Bryce Dallas Howard) to his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) take a few bars when the moment suits. As a director, Fletcher makes a definitive choice to elevate the music beyond its role in the timeline of a great artist’s history — the music isn’t just part of John’s life, it is his life, essential for telling his story and expressing his emotions.
While some numbers are too on the nose (Elton warbles “Tiny Dancer” as he watches Bernie go off with an “LA lady, blue jean baby” for the night), others are truly inspired – who would’ve thought turning “Bennie and the Jets” into an orgiastic version of Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity would work so well?
Rock stars of this stature deserve larger-than-life stories – and what’s bigger than an honest-to-goodness musical that allows their character to exist in a fantasy realm where they suddenly break into song and choreographed dance? Fletcher, and screenwriter Lee Hall, so clearly wanted to tell Elton’s story in a manner that suited the madcap, flamboyant stage presence that propelled him to fame. If Elton was all about spectacle and yes, a certain bohemian sensibility, then a film about his life needed to ooze that from its pores (arguably so should a film about Freddie Mercury, but alas, no). Rocketman attempts to do just that – even if doesn’t 100 percent stick the landing.
There are times where this tactic falls short, where the ambition can’t be matched by the execution and moments play as corny. But they use the lens of magical realism with the heady traditions of musical theatre to get to the heart of one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists – and that’s a hell of a point-of-view to go all in with. One destined to rock you a lot more than playing it safe ever could.